Texas New Voices bill times out, will be reintroduced in 2021

Rep. Mary González talks with students journalists supporting her HB 2244 outside of the Public Education Committee room.

UPDATE: A Texas New Voices bill timed out in session and will have to be reintroduced in 2021.

HB2244 passed out of the House Public Education Committee, but died in the calendars committee, which schedules floor hearings. The legislative session ended May 27. An identical bill in the Senate, SB514, was heard in the Senate Committee on Education but was left pending without a vote.

Emma Oliver, education policy analyst for one of HB2244’s sponsors, Rep. Mary González (D), said that this was largely a matter of timing.

“We didn’t get any inklings or rumors that anyone was legitimately trying to kill it outright,” said Oliver. “What happened was it got sent to [the calendars committee] pretty late … it ran out of time to go through the process because we did get a hearing a little late in session.”

Neha Madhira, a prominent New Voices activist and former Editor-in-Chief of Prosper High School’s Eagle Nation Online, also cited timing as an issue. She acknowledged that she and others who championed the bill were new to legislative advocacy, which slowed down the process. Madhira is a Nick Ferentinos New Voices Fellow for the Student Press Law Center.

“We had spent so much time trying to perfect our bill and educate ourselves about everything in the legislative session since we didn’t know a lot about it,” said Madhira. “But I think if we had done everything about a month earlier, we could have at least pushed out of the House with a vote.”

Oliver said New Voices supporters have been trying to work with school board and administrators associations that oppose the legislation to get them on board with the bill, or at least to stop resisting it.

Since the Texas legislature meets biennially, the next session does not start until January 2021, but Oliver thinks that the bill still has strong potential to pass.

“In Texas … we have a huge mentality of ‘we don’t want anyone to take away our rights’ … that’s the angle we were starting to push,” she said.

Madhira said that students involved with New Voices of Texas are already getting ready for next session.

“We have officers that we’re appointing next week, since we have so many students who are interested as well as advisers who are really willing to facilitate it,” Madhira said.

“We’re going to still have a lobby day in the year that we don’t actually meet in session. We’re going to keep things going and keep having educational sessions about it.”

Madhira thinks that González’s involvement is key to the bill’s future success. González is serving her fourth term as a state representative. She is on the Public Education Committee, the Appropriations Committee, and is Vice Chair of the Local & Consent Calendars Committee.

“We’re really hopeful for next session because we have such a mover and shaker as our House sponsor,” she said.

4/26/2019 Texas New Voices bill gets first hearing in state Senate

UPDATE: A New Voices bill got its first hearing in Texas’ upper chamber in Austin on April 23, marking another first for the New Voices movement in the Lone Star state.

The hearing for SB514 was marked by strong testimony and skepticism from some senators on the Senate Education Committee. Texas Senator José Rodríguez, a democrat, is the bill sponsor.

“The legal protection that’s afforded student journalists today under federal law is widely recognized as inadequate,” said Amy Kristin Sanders, a media professor and attorney recruited by the Student Press Law Center to testify in support of the bill.

Lisa Silveira, editor-in-chief of the Odyssey yearbook at Seven Lakes High School, testified that articles in the school newspaper about dangerous teen trends like vaping, eating Tide pods and the “cinnamon challenge,” were pulled at the last minute by administrators — even though they had been previously approved.

“We want to cover these topics not as an act of defiance for our community, but as journalists who want to keep people involved,” Silveria said. The school’s media adviser resigned after the censorship, Silveria said.

Some senators on the committee were concerned with oversight of Texas student newspapers under the proposed measure, drawing a distinction between professional and school

“This is not a free market newspaper. This is a government publication, it’s owned and operated, paid for by taxpayer dollars,” said Sen. Bob Hall, a Republican.

The bill is now pending with the committee — and a vote could come at any time, according to Rodríguez’s Austin office.

An identical bill has passed the House Public Education committee, and is now in a house committee that decides what bills make it to the floor. In the Texas Senate, the lieutenant governor has the power to move bills to the floor.

Should both bills make it out of their respective chambers with conflicting amendments, those differences would be reconciled in a conference committee.

But that step is a ways off, and the Texas legislature is set to adjourn on May 27.

View the testimony here, starting around minute 15.

4/10/2019 Texas New Voices bill passes key house committee

UPDATE: A New Voices bill in Texas just passed out of the House Public Education committee with near unanimous approval.

The bill, HB2244, passed April 9 with 12 votes and one absence. The committee heard bills all day and was working for nearly 15 hours, according to a tweet from bill sponsor Rep. Mary González, a democrat.

It now moves to a house committee that decides which bills make it to the house floor, and advocates are focusing their efforts on getting that committee to approve the bill. The deadline to get a bill to the floor for debate is May 9.

A new sponsor, Republican Rep. Scott Sanford, signed on to be a joint author of the bill. Sanford represents a district that includes Prosper High School, where New Voices advocate Neha Madhira is Editor-in-Chief of the Eagle Nation Online.

She was one of the writers on several opinion pieces that were censored by school administrators in 2018, with coverage spanning from the Student Press Law Center to The New York Times.

“This will help our campaign tremendously because not only is he also on the Public Ed. Committee, but also he will make our bill bipartisan. I am hopeful all of this support by students, advisers and now legislators from both parties will push our bill out of the House and hopefully the Senate,” Madhira said.

4/5/2019 New Voices bill gets a hearing in Texas

TEXAS — A New Voices bill got a hearing in the Texas legislature on April 4, marking the first time the proposal was presented to a statehouse committee.

About 40 high school journalists, advisers and First Amendment advocates turned out to the state capitol in Austin to support HB2244, the new voices proposal, said Leah Waters, journalism adviser at Frisco High school in Frisco, Texas and the state director for the Texas Association of Journalism Educators.

Advocates pose outside of the Texas Statehouse. A New Voices bill got a hearing in the House Committee on Public Education Thursday. Photo Courtesy of Neha Madhira.

“This bill would basically restore press rights, to students, to my kids,” Waters said.

Fourteen states already have New Voices laws on their books. These laws are part of a nationwide effort to pass “New Voices” bills in state legislatures, which effectively counteract and clarify the limits of the 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court decision.

The Hazelwood decision greatly expanded the ability of public school administrators to control the content of student media.

Rep. Mary Gonzalez, the bill’s sponsor, introduced it front of the House Public Education committee – and was immediately hit with skepticism from the Rep. Dan Huberty, who chairs the House Committee on Public Education.

“I’m not trying to be a smart aleck, but we have the First Amendment in this country. Why do you think you need to have a bill that says what we’re already allowed to do,” Huberty asked.

Gonzalez said there are questions around what students can and cannot be censored, and the bill essentially creates clarity for student journalists and their advisers about what they can and cannot publish.

Wesley Lewis, an Austin-based attorney with the Haynes Boone law firm, appeared before the committee on behalf of the Student Press Law Center.

“Unfortunately, constitutional protections that are currently afforded to students are imbalanced and inadequate to allow journalism programs to fully accomplish their goals,” Lewis said.

Steve Listopad, a journalism instructor and adviser to student media at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, traveled to the Lone Star State to testify for the bill and sought to assuage concerns about the bill. Listopad was an advisers to students who proposed the a New Voices bill in North Dakota in 2015-16, which ignited efforts in other states.

“This bill is meant to bring student press rights back to the level of the right to wear a T-Shirt. The right to have a poster in your locker. Those rights don’t exist in Texas, they only exist in the 14 states with these laws,” Listopad said.

A policy analyst for Gonzalez said Friday they plan to send committee leadership more concrete information on the bill and why it’s needed.

Neha Madhira is an editor of the Eagle Nation Online at Prosper (Texas) High School. She was one of the writers on several opinion pieces that were censored by school administrators last year, with coverage spanning from the Student Press Law Center to The New York Times.

Neha Madhira (Prosper High School) testifies in front of the Public Education Committee, Reps pictured (from left to right) – Rep. Scott Sanford, Rep. Diego Bernal, Amy Peterson (clerk), Chairman Dan Huberty, and Rep. Harold Dutton

Madhira recently wrote a CNN op-ed about censorship of student journalism and the importance of press freedom.

The bill will be voted on in about two weeks, Madhira said, and advocates are confident it will pass. An identical bill is in the state Senate — SB514 — but it hasn’t moved since being assigned to the Senate education committee.

“The House side is more promising, which is why we pursued it first,” Madhira said. Getting through the Senate during this session is a tall order, but if the bill doesn’t make it through the state’s upper chamber during this session it will keep its spot until the next time the Texas legislature meets in 2021.

A video of the hearing is available here. Testimony on HB2244 begins at about 3.5 hours into the hearing.

SPLC reporter Cory Dawson can be reached at cdawson@splc.org or at 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @Dawson_and_Co.

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