Wisconsin Assembly approves New Voices bill

The Student Press Law Center commends the Wisconsin Assembly for their approval yesterday of New Voices legislation restricting censorship of school-sponsored student media. The bill now heads to the Senate for consideration.

Sponsored by Representative Tom Michalski, AB 551 ensures that Wisconsin’s public sixth grade through college student journalists determine the content of student media and cannot be censored except in certain rare circumstances. The legislation also protects from retaliation student media advisers who refuse to unlawfully restrict their students’ rights.

The bill is necessary to reverse the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which ushered in a vague standard for the restriction of high school student media that some have interpreted as allowing for censorship in virtually any circumstance. Wisconsin is one of only three states in which a court has held that Hazelwood may apply to higher education, and that college and university student media could be censored.

The bill’s passage comes more than 30 years after Wisconsin first approved of student press freedom, passing legislation that was unexpectedly vetoed by then-Governor Tommy Thompson. Since then, a dozen states have adopted similar legislation including Wisconsin’s neighboring states Iowa and Illinois.

“We are thrilled to see such full-throated support by the Assembly of Wisconsin’s student journalists,” said Gary Green, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “For too long, Wisconsin’s student journalists have been asked to shelve good, important journalism in deference to subjective and capricious fears of adults. They have silenced themselves to save their teachers’ jobs. And they have learned to self-censor just as we encourage them to become fearless new leaders. AB 551 will reverse these damaging effects, and allow student journalists to exercise the same rights as every other student on campus. 

“We also thank the members for recognizing the incredible advocacy work of Wisconsin’s student journalists and advisers, especially Simon Mehring. Their tireless efforts and unyielding commitment to student press freedom are the backbone of the New Voices movement, and show so clearly the importance New Voices bills like AB 551 pose to students nationwide. We are proud to support and work with these advocates, and look forward to seeing Wisconsin become the next state to pass a New Voices law.” 

Wisconsin stands to be the 18th state to adopt student press freedom, and the second state behind West Virginia to pass such a law in 2023. 

Video of the Assembly vote is available here (AB 551 begins at 1:24:00).