New Voices bills see success and defeat in 2019 state legislative sessions

The New Voices movement has made significant strides in 2019, with a record number of state bills (11) introduced, and two measures adopted in Arkansas to strengthen protections for student journalists.

New Voices is a student-powered nonpartisan grassroots movement of state-based advocates who seek to protect student press freedom with state laws. These laws counteract the impact of the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court decision, which dramatically changed the balance of student press rights. Supporters include advocates in law, education, journalism and civics who want schools and colleges to be more welcoming places for student voices.

“The New Voices movement is gaining momentum across the country and this year has seen an unprecedented level of activity,” said Hadar Harris, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “Eleven states introduced new legislation. Students and advisers in Texas and New York held well-organized lobby days. Legislation passed out of committee in Nebraska, New Jersey, and Texas. Protections for student journalists were significantly expanded in Arkansas after two bills were adopted during the legislative session. And the legislative season is still not over in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Hundreds of students and advisers mobilized to create new momentum on the ground that we look forward to building upon in the year to come. We are very excited about the year ahead.”

Currently, 14 states have laws to protect the First Amendment rights of student journalists.

Progress for student journalists in 2019

Arkansas won two victories for student journalists and First Amendment advocates. Lawmakers unanimously passed HB1231 in March, which expanded rights initially only granted to K-12 journalists under the 1995 Student Publications Act to cover college journalists as well.  

The new law protects public college student journalists in the state from interference from their administrators, and protects their advisers from retaliation should their students publish something administrators don’t like. 

“Student journalists at colleges and universities have the same right to freely gather information as any other journalist. The freedom of the press that our Constitution guarantees does not limit that freedom by age,” said Steve Listopad, a journalism adviser at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed HB1432 into law in April. The law now covers all school-sponsored student “media” as opposed to all “publications.” The law will now apply more widely to non-traditional student outlets of media expression such as blogs, radio stations or podcasts. 

New Jersey’s S1176 passed the state Senate Education Committee unanimously in June, and will be heard on the Senate floor in September. New Voices allies in the state are optimistic that it will pass. SPLC Staff Attorney Sommer Ingram Dean testified along with a delegation of students, advisers and other First Amendment advocates.

“[The unanimous vote] is a great sign that this will go in the Senate and pass, and we will be hopeful that it will pass in the assembly,” said John Tagliareni, the former president of the Garden State Scholastic Press Association and a former high school journalism adviser. “This is really exciting.”

Looking ahead to future sessions

In some states, legislation to protect the rights of student journalists timed out, but will have a chance to be heard in future sessions. Nebraska LB206 passed through legislative committees unanimously but won’t be heard until the 2020 session, which begins in January. Advocates are hopeful for the bill’s progress.

“This is good news … The advisers have really, really worked hard on it. They’re a force,” said Hillary DeVoss, a former media adviser and a New Voices organizer for Nebraska. “They’ll do what it takes [to get the bill passed].” 

In Nebraska, at least 11 students and advisers, along with SPLC Executive Director Hadar Harris, provided testimony before the unicameral legislature’s judiciary committee on Feb. 1.

In Texas, 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. 

Since the Texas legislature meets every other year, It can next be taken up in 2021. About 40 students, advisers, and First Amendment advocates attended a lobby day in Austin on April 4. 

Neha Madhira, former editor-in-chief of Prosper High School’s Eagle Nation Online, said that she and other students are working to build momentum for the next session. Madhira was the Summer 2019 Nick Ferentinos New Voices Fellow for the SPLC and is now a freshman at the University of Texas at Austin.

“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,” said Madhira. 

Minnesota’s HB1868 passed through the House education policy committee and was heard and amended on the House floor, but was sent back to committee at the adjournment of the legislative session and won’t be heard again until early 2020. In Missouri, HB743 was also sent back to the education committee to be reheard in 2020. And Pennsylvania’s SB806, which would amend a 1949 student media law, has been assigned to the state Senate education committee to be heard when session reconvenes in September.  

Regrouping for another try

A Hawaii New Voices bill died in February after not being assigned to a committee.

Virginia’s HB2382, introduced for the first time in 2019, was killed in an education subcommittee January with a tied 3-3 vote. More than two dozen student journalists and their advisers, many of whom faced censorship and retaliation, turned out to testify in Richmond, but only three were allowed to speak before the vote was taken.

 This was the first time this kind of legislation was heard in either state. 

In Virginia, Del. Chris Hurst (D- Blacksburg), the sponsor of HB2382 and a former journalist, said he intends to re-introduce the bill next session. 

New York’s bill, introduced for the second year in a row, was never heard in the Senate or Assembly education committees, despite persistent lobbying from student journalists and First Amendment advocates. And Indiana’s HB1213 was left pending in the House Education Committee without a vote when session adjourned.

New Voices volunteers see momentum building for widespread change in their states and across the country. Tagliareni said that he hopes that if this bill passes in New Jersey, it will build momentum for similar bills to pass in states that do not have student press freedom laws yet, including neighboring New York.

“The bipartisan support has been really important. Many of the legislators are pretty far apart when it comes to being conservative or being liberal, but this is something that they have been able to agree on,” said Tagliareni. 

Opponents of the legislation, which include the associations for school board attorneys and school administrators, have argued that students should not be subject to the same rights as full-time journalists. Hurst was quick to refute this argument when speaking to a group of supporters following the Virginia New Voices hearing in Richmond at the end of January. 

“As soon as you are practicing journalism, you are a journalist,” said Hurst.

SPLC reporter Ginny Bixby can be reached at or at 202-974-6318. Follow her on Twitter at @Ginny_Bixby

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