Optimism, flexibility and thinking longterm: Lessons from New Voices New Jersey

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On December 21, 2022, New Jersey became the 15th state to adopt New Voices student press freedom protections. The law came after years of relentless work by advocates, and particularly the work of advisers Tom McHale and John Tagliareni. Here, John shares reflections on the New Voices process and his tips for advocates working — and sometimes struggling — to become the next New Voices state. Check out Tom’s thoughts here.

In the film, “The Untouchables” there is a scene in which Sean Connery’s character asks his colleagues, “What are you prepared to do?” In deciding to pursue New Voices legislation, that question is very relevant.

The answer for us was that we were prepared to take on a long hard fight, but surprised with how much more difficult the process became. We had our first bill introduced in December, 2015, yet it took six years, in four different legislative sessions to finally pass. However, after many years and hundreds of emails, texts, and phone calls, it was worth it, with the passage of Bill S108, and its eventual signing into law by New Jersey’s Governor Phil Murphy.

Tom McHale and I started to prepare for our push to pass this legislation over eight years ago, as more egregious censorship cases and the harassment of the journalism teachers/advisers had increased. Tom had resigned over a prior review issue, since he had never had to turn anything into his administration before. He contacted me because he knew that I had attempted similar legislation years earlier. We worked well together, by breaking down tasks and responsibilities, such as sending emails and contacting prospective sponsors and following up, to make sure that we kept the momentum going. 

Our team members were other teachers and advisers, and students at both high school and college levels, those who were not familiar with the world of politics. A number of them had attended one of the SPLC Summer Institutes, and other NV team members were recruited from the GSSPA Student Chapter that we had established years earlier for education, networking and also for press freedom advocacy.

We had to learn fast and move on from one disappointment to another, yet remain optimistic. We constantly had to educate prospective sponsors and their aides. We were polite, courteous, patient and flexible, but at times, we were unmoving, and we displayed our determination.

We began with one Assemblywoman who agreed to be our sponsor and Frank LoMonte, the former Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center, who drafted the bill and worked diligently with her staff. That bill was introduced in December 2015, and it was a key moment. Even though it was a lame duck legislature and Assemblywoman Donna Simon herself did not win reelection, the bill was something tangible that we could carry forward.

Eventually, we were able to get the support of Senator Nia Gill and Senator Shirley Turner,  and Assemblyman Ralph Caputo and Assemblyman Hal Wirths as sponsors in their respective houses. We eventually had 29 cosponsors in the Assembly before the final passage.

We were very pleased that the legislature acted in a bipartisan way, since both bills were identical and passed unanimously in both houses. Both parties believed in student rights and the First Amendment. They learned that students had been censored or had been afraid to cover some issues and self-censored. They understood the need to protect the teachers and advisers, since many had been either fired, harassed or intimidated because they had defended those students who had their articles censored. They liked that each school would have a mandate to create its own publications policy, within the limits of the new law.

We also had further support of the SPLC, from its expert and dedicated staff. Hadar Harris, the SPLC Executive Director and Hillary Davis, the Advocacy and Organizing Director, focused on New Voices legislation, and were both amazing in their commitment to our cause. Sommer Ingram Dean, SPLC staff attorney, was outstanding during both the Assembly and Senate hearings.

We also got the endorsement of the New Jersey Education Association, our powerful teachers professional association/union. We also had an Associate Director of Government relations in Trenton who was able to contact key legislators and their aides and to give us advice. The Journalism Education Association, the NJ Society of Professional Journalists, and numerous other organizations endorsed our legislation. That support was crucial and invaluable when getting more sponsors on board and for having experts testify at Education Committee Hearings. 

As board members of the Garden State Scholastic Press Association, we received tremulous support from our organization. One very successful campaign was the printing and mailing of postcards with a New Voices New Jersey logo on the front and a message to Assembly members and Senators on the back. Tom had a spreadsheet with the districts listed with their legislators. Students voluntarily signed the postcards for his or her representative in their district. This was accomplished mostly with our team members’ help at our Fall Press Day Conferences. We were able to get hundreds of cards mailed since we have about between 700- 800 students attend our conferences each year. 

We focused on NV as a theme at our conferences, and we were honored to have Mary Beth Tinker serve as our keynote speaker in 2015. That energized all of our attendees and gave more momentum to our cause. The students loved the black armbands and were thrilled to get her autograph.

Cathy Kuhlmeier spoke on a an SPLC sponsored Zoom Conference for NJ, during last year’s Press Freedom Week, which included legislators who were sponsors of our legislation. That also made a huge impact.

We expected opposition from the principals and supervisors associations as well as school board organizations. The principals were very content with Hazelwood, and they fought to keep it, claiming that their ability to run the school in a safe and orderly fashion, would be severely limited by New Voices legislation. We were able to show that Hazelwood was too vague and was often misused, and that our legislation would actually avoid lawsuits.

We also got a boost from the Supreme Court’s Mahanoy Decision. We explained that school publications benefit from the guidance of a teacher/adviser, but since students have many ways to voice their opinions about their schools off campus and on social media, administrations would risk an increase in unsupervised expression. Since the student in the case had used a vulgar expression, she could not be punished. We explained that the more repressive the school district is with censorship, the more students would be likely to turn to off campus media to express their frustration, and that students’ off campus speech was protected.

We realize, in hindsight, that we made some mistakes. For example, we both assumed that there were legislators who might oppose our legislation because one had been a member of a board of education, and another was an administrator. We were wrong in both cases. In fact one turned out to be in a key position and was very supportive. We learned from that lesson.

I would recommend finding a sponsor who has some influence and can also work with a legislator on the other side of the aisle. However, it really matters if you can have the support from a legislator from the party that is in power in the statehouse. In NJ, the committee hearings and bill vote  postings are decided by the Assembly Speaker and the Senate President. 

While this is our experience, we would hope that other New Voices advocates can learn from it, and to prepare for a difficult challenge and to be persistent. Even if not successful, the students and teachers will know that they have support. If successful, there is the satisfaction of knowing that you can make a difference and become another New Voices State.