What advocates can learn from the New Voices win in New Jersey

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, Tom 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 John’s thoughts here.

I’ve been working on New Voices legislation in New Jersey before I even knew what New Voices was. In those eight years, I’ve learned many things about the legislative process in New Jersey. I hope some of what I learned can help you as well.

Find the Right Sponsor

While it’s a good idea to seek bipartisan support, we found it more important to have a primary sponsor from the party that is in power. And, of course, you want someone passionate about student voice or scholastic journalism and who has the experience and political capital to move the bill forward. I was surprised by how many legislators based their sponsorship on the primary sponsors. Even seemingly silly things like whose name was listed first on the bill seemed to make a difference in moving the bill forward. It also helps if they have a Chief of Staff or Legislative Aide who will take your calls and provide guidance.

The Power of Student Voices

Legislators love to hear from student journalists and activists. Finding and cultivating students who are not only passionate about New Voices but willing to put in the work is vital. Identifying the students who can articulate why this matters is also important. These are the students who will speak at committee hearings, conferences, and special events. If possible, have these students get trained at the Student Press Law Center’s New Voices Leadership Institute. The training and confidence our student leaders received there were invaluable.

Find Opportunities to Raise Awareness

Statewide conferences held by your scholastic press association can be great opportunities to build a network of students and advisers. Inviting your sponsors to these events can be public relations events for the bill, students, and legislators. You can also build around national recognitions like JEA’s Scholastic Journalism Week. The SPLC worked with our student leaders to create an online panel discussion in which they discussed censorship and self-censorship issues. Some of our legislative sponsors attended that online panel discussion and came away impressed.

Reach Out to Organizations

There are several different groups and organizations in your state which may support teachers, students, journalism, or free speech. The state teacher association, the state chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and our scholastic press association were important supporters of our legislation. While there are national organizations that have endorsed New Voices, you want to work with state chapters and organizations since their members live in your state. Legislators give more weight to the voices of their constituents, so these statewide groups provided us with a network of members who could call and email their representatives. 

Of course, the Student Press Law Center was always an essential source of advice and support. The establishment of the New Voices Advocacy and Organizing office with Director Hillary Davis focusing exclusively on New Voices was a game-changer for us.

Reach Out to the Opposition 

I can’ say that we had a lot of success with this. We were able to connect with the New Jersey Principal and Supervisor Association by phone at one of their conferences, but in the end they continued to be our main opposition. They were even able to lobby the governor to issue a conditional veto on the bill after it passed both houses of the legislature. Still, if you can start a dialogue with these groups and hear what their issues are, you may be able to get them to drop their opposition or at least become more familiar with the arguments they will present to lawmakers.

Prepare for Frustration and Disappointments

OK, I don’t really know how to do this, but it’s important to realize that there will be times when you feel like things will never get moving. That you are fighting this battle on your own. That you wonder whether you can keep going.

Our initial bill was sponsored in 2015 by a freshman assemblywoman who didn’t win reelection. The bill died a month later when the two year legislative session ended. We had other primary sponsors retire, lose elections, or leave their post to run for another office. The bills would die again when the legislative session ended at the beginning of 2018 right after the Senate version of the bill passed unanimously. By the time the bill finally passed and was signed by the governor last year, however; we had grown from one sponsor to 39 and passed both houses unanimously.

What kept me going during the more difficult times was focusing on why I was doing this: Why was it important to me? Why will it be important to others? And by leaning heavily on the others that are doing this same work.

Feel free to reach out and lean on me. The work you are doing matters.

Does your state protect student press freedom? Learn more and get involved in New Voices.  

The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our weekly newsletter.