SPLC ensures Washington New Voices bill effectively protects students’ rights

The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) began an on-ground initiative in Washington to implement the New Voices bill in order to ensure that students, advisers and administrators know their rights and how they must support free press under the law.

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Washington’s New Voices bill, signed into law by Governor Jay Inslee on March 21, 2018, “provides that student editors are responsible for the content of their media and that student advisers may not be terminated or otherwise disciplined for complying with the law.” The bill’s provisions protect both collegiate and secondary school student journalists and their advisers.

Hadar Harris, executive director of the SPLC, said the organization’s implementation efforts, which began in January 2021, are crucial in providing tangible benefits for student journalists.

“We know that just getting a law passed is not enough,” Harris said. “We know that to really shift the legal landscape on the ground you have to make sure that the law is implemented robustly.”

According to Hillary Davis, advocacy and organizing director of the SPLC, the SPLC’s on-ground efforts to ensure that robust implementation have consisted of providing resources to all school superintendents, principles and student media advisers over the course of the past year.

“First and foremost, what we’ve done is made sure that everybody is aware of the law, what it says and what it means for them,” Davis said. “So, we have rolled out digital and hardcopy resources — a very clear brochure that lays out exactly what the law says and what it means — answer some key questions about the law and make sure everybody is on the same page.”

Harris said another facet of implementation includes spot-checking high school media policies across the state. The SPLC completed public records requests in order to sample a variety of student media policies in different high schools and analyze those policies to assess if they were in accordance with New Voices.

Harris said there was a range in levels of compliance across the policies, and the SPLC has followed up with the school districts that were sampled in order to provide guidance about their policies.

“That resulted immediately in one school district changing their student media policy as a result of that letter that we sent to them,” Harris said. “We’re learning through that process and our intention is to continue following up to figure out how to make sure that all student media policies in the state of Washington, and in any state that has a New Voices law, complies with the law.”

Davis said ensuring students have protection under New Voices is important now more than ever because student journalists have been vital sources of information within their communities when reporting on the covid-19 pandemic, racial justice movements and other historical events over the course of the past few years.

“They were doing so [reporting], in a lot of states, in a way where first they were questioning whether or not they should be talking about it,” Davis said. “In states like Washington that have New Voices laws, those students have a lot more protections; a lot more ability to think first about the truth and the newsworthiness and then second about how it would be received by a hostile community.”

Kathy Schrier, executive director of the Washington Journalism Education Association (WJEA), has been working in close collaboration with the SPLC on the ground in Washington to ensure student journalists are protected under New Voices in her state.

Schrier said although passing legislation like New Voices takes time, it is important to continue advocating for the right to free speech and to protect students’ voices given how important their voices are in upholding democracy.

“People deserve to have journalism: real journalism, not just stuff on Twitter… because if our democracy loses journalism, then we’ve lost our democracy,” Schrier said