More Than Half of New Jersey School Districts in Violation of Student Press Freedom Law

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Contact: Hillary Davis, Advocacy and Organizing Director, (202) 785-5451

An analysis by the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) has found that more than half of New Jersey school districts may be in violation of a 2021 law protecting student press freedom.

N.J.S.A. 18A:36-44 and 18A:36-45 protects student journalists from censorship by school officials and protects school employees who refuse to unlawfully censor students from retaliation. The New Jersey legislature unanimously approved the act and it was then signed into law by Gov. Murphy in December 2021. Among several other provisions, the law requires all school districts to have a written student freedom of expression policy in place by the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year. 

According to an Oct. 20 letter from SPLC executive director Hadar Harris to Acting Commissioner of Education Angelica Allen-McMillan, SPLC’s examination of 100 New Jersey school districts revealed that 10 months after the law’s approval and more than a month after students returned to campus, 52% of the sampled districts do not have the required policy in place. Despite being informed of the new law and given a draft policy by SPLC in May 2022, 39% of the sampled school districts have not even begun the policy adoption process.

SPLC sent the letter to Allen-McMillan as student journalists from across New Jersey gathered at the Garden State Scholastic Press Association’s Fall Press Day to learn about their rights and steps they can take to ensure compliance with the New Voices law in their own school districts.

“While many outdated policies persist, student journalists across New Jersey have started the school year, published school newspapers and developed initial spreads for their school yearbooks under misleading and unlawful guidance from their school districts,” SPLC said in the letter. “Indeed, many of the outdated policies that remain on the books are in direct conflict with the parameters set out in the New Voices law … We are deeply concerned that continued inaction by school districts across New Jersey will leave students, teachers and administrators confused about their rights and responsibilities under the law, and that the unlawful censorship of New Jersey’s student journalists is taking place well into the 2022-2023 school year.”

The New Voices law was passed after years of student journalists and teachers testifying and detailing overzealous and subjective censorship by school officials, including the suppression of articles critical of a school superintendent, discussing students smoking in school bathrooms, and even an article about the student media censorship. 

SPLC calls on the Acting Commissioner of Education to issue a clear guidance to all school districts to draw attention to the new law and every school district’s legal obligation to adopt a written student free expression policy immediately. SPLC stands ready to help the Department of Education or any school board in New Jersey draft a policy which complies with the new law and work with school administrators to understand their obligations to respect the independent editorial decisions of student journalists. 

Learn more about the New Voices law in New Jersey.

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Student Press Law Center: Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has worked to support, promote and defend the First Amendment and freedom of expression rights of student journalists at the high school and college level, and the advisers who support them. Working at the intersection of law, journalism and education, SPLC runs the nation’s only free legal hotline for student journalists. We also provide training, educational resources and support the grassroots non-partisan New Voices movement, seeking state-based legislative support for student press freedom. The SPLC is an independent, non-profit 501c(3) organization based in Washington, D.C.