How We Won West Virginia: Kellen Hoard Talks New Voices Advocacy and Advice 

Interview by Emily Hickey, SPLC Storytelling Intern. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Student advocates boldly fought for student press freedom protections in West Virginia, pushing the state to successfully pass the Student Journalist Press Freedom Protection Act in March 2023. Because of their dedication, West Virginia is now the 17th state to adopt this type of legislation, known nationally as a “New Voices” law.  

The law, which ensures that high school and college student journalists have control over the content they publish in school-sponsored media, would not have been possible without the unwavering efforts of student advocates like Kellen Hoard. 

Headshot of Kellen Hoard.

Hoard, a first-year student at George Washington University in Washington DC and a co-recipient of the Student Press Law Center’s 2022 High School Courage in Student Journalism award, worked with SPLC, rallied students across the state and persuaded legislators to put student press freedom on the docket. 

Hoard spoke with SPLC about his experiences as a New Voices advocate in West Virginia, what his future plans look like and shared advice for students looking to become advocates themselves. 

Emily Hickey: What inspired you to become an advocate in the New Voices movement?

Kellen Hoard: I’ve been a student journalist since I was in 10th grade. In the course of working on my high school newspaper, I became familiar with the concept of press law. 

It became a general interest for me, which became particularly acute in senior year of high school when I was serving as co-editor in chief of my student newspaper and over the course of that year, we ran into some legal issues with our district administration.

Learn more about Kellen’s story.

I already had a lot of experience working in the Washington state legislature — I’m from Washington state — doing advocacy on law and education-related issues. Then I became interested in press law and they fused together to lead to a general interest in New Voices legislation. 

When I came out to university, I was looking for opportunities to give back because Washington state already had a New Voices law. I wanted to help other states using my experience from Washington state politics and from student journalism. 

I see a path forward for how more bills can be passed like it in other states using similar models to those we used in West Virginia

EH: I can see how that interest in state politics and education and press law dovetail to create this interest, especially given your personal experience as co-editor-in-chief. You wanted to give back. What motivated you to advocate for New Voices specifically in West Virginia? 

KH: The process was not super strategic beyond what states are kind of near DC. I was looking around where I thought I could lend some level of momentum and what ended up being relatively geographically close to DC was West Virginia. Not that it ever ended up being relevant; I didn’t end up even setting foot in West Virginia during the course of this advocacy. So, it could have been anywhere, but what West Virginia had that made it, in my opinion, particularly primed to have New Voices pushed over the finish line was that the bill been introduced twice before in West Virginia. 

The first time, it had died pretty quickly. The second time, it had actually gained a little bit of momentum, and so I saw that the momentum had been there. I saw the sponsor was still there and so I got in touch with him and said, let’s see if we can do this. There’s more nuance than that, but it seemed like a state that was ready to accept New Voices into the fold. 

EH: You identified how New Voices was ready to be pushed over the finish line in West Virginia and you got in contact with the sponsor. Can you walk me through the advocacy work that you started doing after you took that first step?

KH: I saw the state senator had introduced that bill prior, so I reached out to him over e-mail and said I would be interested in helping support this bill if you introduced it and I’d be happy to help try to rally advocates and get this going. So we ended up calling and he decided to reintroduce the bill. 

My job from there was to track down advocates. I started reaching out to people who I had heard of in the state who are affiliated with JEA [Journalism Education Association], who are affiliated with college student journalism programs at West Virginia University in Marshall, to teachers I’d heard about, to students I’d heard about or tracked down online. I ended up collating them all into one central advocate e-mail thread, and for the next several months, we coordinated there on the best places to e-mail or to call, or who to contact and what we should do from there. 

EH: Let’s get into the details of legislative advocacy from your end. Tell me what that looked like for you and what your process was.

KH: Every state is different, which is crucial. But because state politics often operates at a smaller scale than federal politics, what you’re able to do is — by creating quantitative evidence of momentum and urgency and importance in a bill — you are usually able to get going somewhere. 

So what I tried to do in the state in conjunction with the advocates there — and they were critical in this regard — was wage a steady campaign of persistently being there and reminding legislators [about the bill] over and over and over again through emails, through calls to the point when it kind of got annoying. Being annoying in a good way is not a bad thing in state advocacy.

It was not a choice for them to simply ignore the bill; they had to at least consider it. The first responsibility was to get it considered and we did it through persistence.

Once it got docketed for consideration, it was a matter of persuasion, and what we found was successful — especially in a state like West Virginia which had many legislators who had fears about unintended consequences of the bill — was building a narrative around what this bill was. [We did this] so [legislators] didn’t see it as this bill which would lead to terrible consequences for children; it was, in fact, in defense of free speech. And so you frame it repeatedly, consistently, along just a couple of metrics that are drilled into their head and there tends to be success in that model.

To learn more about the advocacy tools Kellen used in West Virginia and how you can apply them in your own state, submit your application for SPLC’s summer 2023 New Voices Student Leaders Institute!

EH: Can you tell me about what it looked like as you started to approach the finish line? What was your experience as the bill progressed through the legislature and eventually passed?

KH: Most of the process throughout the committees and the floors was relatively easy, despite some limited opposition from committee members to the high school aspect or to the bill in general. It was passing basically unanimously out of Senate committees, almost unanimously out of the Senate floor. And even though there were some issues with getting it on the counter for consideration, for most of the bill’s process, we didn’t have an issue really getting it through the process.

That was the case until it got to the House floor. This was a Senate bill, so it was kind of the last stage. There was one delegate who I’d spoken with on the phone, so I was aware of his concerns. He was concerned about consequences of the bill that would not have been real issues. 

As it got to the House floor, it had been pulled out of the active calendar to the inactive calendar, either to kill the bill, or to amend high schools out of it and just have it be a college bill. 

Editor’s Note: When New Voices legislation was first introduced in 2022, the Senate approved a version protecting only college students. In 2023, the Senate Education Committee expanded the bill to protect high school student journalists and advisers. However, the 2023 version of the legislation contained an unconstitutional prohibition on language that is “obscene, vulgar, or offensive to a reasonable person.” This language was an overbroad limitation on the rights of student journalists, especially those at the college level. Read SPLC’s full statement on the unconstitutional language and our response to the Senate Education Committee urging for an amendment.

So there was a period of several days right towards the end of the session, just a nerve-wracking couple of days, where we didn’t know what happened and it looked like the bill was maybe not going to work out this year.

What ended up being successful was that the advocates and I worked extensively for a period of 24 to 48 hours and did a huge series of contacts through the legislature. It’s hard to illustrate the scale; more communication went out in those 24 hours than in the several months that this bill was processing. It was a major, concentrated turnout effort.

Being annoying in a good way is not a bad thing in state advocacy

Even the sponsor and –– I think to some extent –– the advocates were pretty hopeless at this point. But in kind of a shock, the bill came back on the active calendar on the House floor after a period of intense, concentrated advocacy. We went to second reading, which is where the amendments could occur, and then the problem delegate stood up and we thought he was going to make the amendment. He withdrew the amendment, which, to this day, not entirely sure why. But we like to think it’s because of the advocacy.

It passed out of the House, passed to the Senate, literally on the last possible day, but we were really quite pleased about that. It went to the governor with relatively little difficulty several days later.

EH: So, the bill has been passed, and we have New Voices in West Virginia, which is really exciting. What are your future plans for your advocacy work?

KH: I’d like to continue working on New Voices. I think it’s a highly underrated issue area and that underrating has both pros and cons. The con is that of course it doesn’t get the number of advocates or attention from listeners that it should, but the pro is that as advocates for New Voices, that lets us pretty much define what the narrative is and push it fresh, which has its own advantages in legislatures.

And so because of that, I would like to be able to help students who are in high school, or like myself now who are in college, who are facing these very legitimate educational and free speech challenges, both because it’s important and but also just because it’s a fulfilling thing to be an advocate who is able to tangibly help others in any way.

Personally, I found not only great enjoyment out of it, but also I see a path forward for how more bills can be passed like it in other states using similar models to those we used in West Virginia. I’d like to help others implement those models, if not myself. 

EH: As you look back on your experience so far and look forward into your future advocacy, wherever that might be, what is your advice for students who are either currently advocating for New Voices in their state or looking to get involved with the movement?

KH: I’ll give one piece of advice that’s obvious, one that’s less obvious, and one that I think is not obvious.

My obvious piece of advice is you can’t do it alone. No state will pass a law that only one person is advocating for. But, also, on a more specific level, being able to work with others in advocacy for New Voices allows you to be a better advocate and allows you to push in the right direction in the first place. And it ensures continued buy-in and implementation post-passage. So it’s important not to do it alone.

One less obvious piece of advice is to talk with staff, too. So many advocates go only for legislators themselves, and that ends up being tricky, both in states which don’t have great system set up for legislators to hear from the public, and in general, because they’re busy during session. Staff are usually the ones setting the calendars or who actually have the ear of their elected officials. Usually, you’re able to find their phone numbers or emails through the legislative information office of your legislature.

And finally a non-obvious piece of advice: Bolding words is your friend. Emails are one of the easiest and most effective ways to raise issues to legislators and not only raise issues, but raise solutions to those issues. Legislators are very time-limited people, especially during session. They are skimming your emails if they’re reading them at all, and so the critical thing to do is you want to get your point across quickly and visibly. What you want to be doing is, in a few sentences, communicating your support for the bill — why you support it and why they should support it? Within that, bold the keywords. We found that that was successful in counteracting the narrative that had been driven in West Virginia.

EH: Do you have anything that we did not touch upon that you wanted to speak on or add?

KH: I was just very happy to have been able to do my part and get this done in West Virginia. The next steps are the implementation there, and I hope the advocates who helped us get it passed will continue to help us and implement it at some level. 

I would encourage those in other states who are looking at ways to get this passed to reach out to as wide a range of potential supporters as possible. Getting advice from the widest range of people as possible, especially those who have worked in this issue, is going to pay dividends for you and lets you have a broader base of knowledge and potential people who can send those emails or make those calls or testify in committee. Make sure you do that work in the beginning in terms of reaching out to people. It will pay dividends in the end.

The Student Press Law Center offers a wide range of resources to student advocates looking to get involved with the New Voices movement. 

Contact SPLC Advocacy and Organizing Director Hillary Davis to get support, talk through strategy or get more information on how to get involved.