New Voices FAQs

Shortcuts to questions:
What is New Voices?
What do New Voices laws say?
What states have New Voices laws?
How can I get involved?
My state has a New Voices law, now what?
Why is New Voices important?
How do New Voices Laws work?
Who supports New Voices?
Doesn’t the First Amendment already say schools can’t censor students?
Aren’t Supreme Court decisions final?
Why state-by-state legislation instead of a First Amendment challenge?
Why do students need a free press?
Who is considered a “student journalist”?
Why should students have the same rights as experienced professionals?
What if school officials think their students are too inexperienced to handle these complex issues, or that these stories will be upsetting or offensive to the school community?
Why should students have the right to put out typographical errors and substandard work?
Won’t New Voices laws result in student media becoming the target of libel lawsuits?
Shouldn’t we be able to stop student journalists from bullying or harassing other students?
Do New Voices laws protect my social media account?

Q: What is New Voices?

A:  New Voices is a nonpartisan, student-driven grassroots effort to restore and protect student press freedom and stop retaliation against advisers who refuse to infringe upon students’ press rights. New Voices works with state legislatures to pass laws supporting these goals. New Voices is supported by student journalists and advisers as well as individuals and groups concerned with education, law, journalism, youth empowerment and civic engagement. 

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Q: What do New Voices laws say?

A: New Voices laws ensure that student media can only be censored if that media is libelous or slanderous, contains an unwarranted invasion of privacy, violates state or federal law, or incites students to disrupt the orderly operation of a school. New Voices laws also prohibit retaliation against advisers who refuse to censor student journalists. A model bill is available here.

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Q: What states have New Voices laws?

A: Fourteen states have New Voices laws – Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. In addition, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania have adopted administrative codes protecting student press freedom. The movement is growing; in 2019, a record eleven state legislatures considered New Voices bills.

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Q: How can I get involved?

A: Contact the New Voices Advocacy and Campaign Organizer, Hillary Davis at hdavis@splc.org to learn more about the New Voices movement in your state.

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Q: My state has a New Voices law, now what?

A: Familiarize yourself with your state’s law here and speak up if you believe the law is not being followed. SPLC is developing a curriculum to help students, advisers and administrators in New Voices states understand their rights and responsibilities under the law; to help with this effort, contact the New Voices Advocacy and Campaign Organizer, Hillary Davis at hdavis@splc.org. You can also reach out to your local school board to make sure they have developed student media policies in accordance with the law. If you believe your school has violated the law, please contact our legal hotline.

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Q: Why is New Voices important?

A: In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that school administrators can censor student publications sponsored by the school when “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” This vague standard has been interpreted to mean just about anything, and for more than a generation administrators have engaged in subjective and arbitrary censorship without an articulable “pedagogical concern.” Censored stories often address issues adults don’t want to discuss, are critical of the school administration, expose scandals in the school, or just make the school “look bad.”

Student journalists want to tell the stories that impact their community, both on and off campus. In an age when unchecked social media is rampant, student journalists want to ensure a thoughtful and thorough pursuit of the truths that matter to them and their peers. Yet as we lecture students in class on how to be civic-minded critical thinkers, thirty years of Hazelwood has bred curiosity and confidence out of our students. Today’s new voices are tomorrow’s media leaders and citizens; we cannot afford to stifle them.

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Q: How do New Voices laws work?

A: If a student believes their speech was or is about to be illegally censored, they can file a lawsuit, called an injunction, to stop the censorship. An adviser who feels they have been fired or otherwise retaliated against for refusing to censor student media that does not meet the criteria for censorship under the law can do the same. Some New Voices laws also require school districts to adopt school-sponsored media policies that provide guidance and uniformity to help administrators in their efforts to support both student press freedom and the wider school community.

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Q: Who supports New Voices?

A: New Voices has been endorsed by a wide variety of national organizations including the American Bar Association, the Journalism Education Association, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, the National Council of Teachers of English, the American Society of News Editors and more. There are many more at the state level. The Hazelwood decision has been discredited by every journalist education organization in America as an excessive level of control on the part of schools.

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Q: Doesn’t the First Amendment already say schools can’t censor students?

A: Students’ First Amendment rights are not absolute, but are balanced against the school’s need to keep students safe. In the landmark 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District, the court said, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” The “Tinker Standard” protects student speech unless it is libelous, an invasion of privacy, creates a “clear and present danger” or a “material and substantial disruption” of the school. 

Student journalists have even fewer rights than the general student body. Where the First Amendment protects a free press, Hazelwood explicitly muzzles students solely because they are the press, an act that runs contrary not only to the tenets of the First Amendment but to the core of a free and informed society.

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Q: Aren’t Supreme Court decisions final?

A: The Constitution is a floor, not a ceiling. The Supreme Court determines whether or not a law illegally restricts a person’s rights, but federal and state governments are always able to improve upon the freedoms guaranteed to their residents. 

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Q: Why state-by-state legislation instead of a First Amendment challenge?

A: State legislatures provide the best opportunity for the student journalists of today to see their rights restored while they are still student journalists. Court cases require a student to have their rights violated and then invest years of time and energy Tinker took four years, and Hazelwood took five – to fighting for release of a story ultimately long out-of-date. Student journalists have been waiting thirty years for the freedom to tell the stories that matter to them. They have waited long enough.

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Q: Why do students need a free press?

A: Without a free press, we cannot trust those who govern us, feel safe in our surroundings, or see our common experiences reflected in those around us. Students are no less in need of or deserving of these things.Yet, we regularly keep them in the dark about issues that significantly impact their lives, often for no other reason than the discomfort of the adults responsible for teaching them how to grapple with these issues.

A free student press is critical outside campus as well. As commercial news organizations continue to shed staff and struggle with economic sustainability, student journalists play an increasingly crucial role in covering local news. In some communities, the only regular newspaper is the student newspaper. In communities with regular daily news, students are the “embedded journalists” at the front lines of education news. A 2009 Brookings Institution survey documents that just 1.4 percent of mainstream media is devoted to education news. If students are not free to disclose the shortcomings of their schools, the public is unlikely to find out. And, a free student press is critical to raising engaged adults. Research in 2014 by the University of Kansas documents that students who work in newsrooms supportive of press freedom report higher levels of civic effectiveness — the belief that they can use their voices to influence public policy. Study after study demonstrates that the only effective way of teaching civics in schools is for students to discuss contemporary political issues – impossible in many schools under Hazelwood.  As the Society of Professional Journalists stated in a resolution calling on schools to enact more balanced policies, “it is well-documented the Hazelwood censorship clause impedes an educator’s ability to adequately instruct and train students in professional journalistic values and practices.”

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Q: Who is considered a “student journalist?”

A: A student journalist is defined as a student “who gathers, compiles, writes, edits, photographs, records, or prepares information for inclusion in school-sponsored media.” This includes those who write for the school paper or the yearbook, as well as those who work for the school broadcast or podcasts and any other media to come in the future. To check out the New Voices model legislation, click here.

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Q: Why should students have the same rights as experienced professionals?

A: They don’t, and they won’t under New Voices legislation. Schools are unique settings, and school officials are charged with making sure that students have a safe, effective place to learn. New Voices legislation does not infringe upon those responsibilities, but uses the same standard for balancing the students’ rights with the schools’ responsibilities that the Supreme Court established in Tinker v. Des Moines.

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Q: What if school officials think their students are too inexperienced to handle these complex issues, or that these stories will be upsetting or offensive to the school community?

A: Students’ daily lives are full of complex issues and incidents that are upsetting to the school community or might offend some individuals. Barring them from discussing these topics does not change that.

It has never been possible to keep students from being exposed to upsetting or offensive information by tearing pages out of newspapers or yearbooks; it is even less so in the age of smartphones and virtual home assistants. The student media serves a valuable “rumor control” function by airing matters of local controversy in an accountable, balanced way. When rumors are running wild on social media, the news outlet can deflate those rumors by presenting verifiable facts and giving school authorities an opportunity to be heard and present their side.

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Q: Why should students have the right to put out typographical errors and substandard work?

A: Nothing in New Voices legislation prohibits student media advisers from providing feedback or teaching appropriate standards of English and journalism. The idea that students are going to insist on a legal right to make typographical errors or errors of fact misapprehends reality.

If the errors are not just typos but in fact faulty or inflammatory statements of fact – a concern which has not come to fruition in any New Voices state – the law allows for changes. The “substantial disruption” standard would apply if a student journalist actually insisted on, for example, publishing the wrong date for the upcoming SAT test or the wrong location for the fire exits then the “substantial disruption” standard would allow the school to change or remove the false article, since it clearly would disrupt school operations to send students to the wrong fire exits or to the SAT on the wrong date.

There really are only two types of factually incorrect articles — the ones where the errors are so immaterial that they won’t do any harm, and the ones where the errors will do harm. And if the errors will really do any meaningful harm to the school’s ability to function, then the “substantial disruption” standard of New Voices legislation affords the school full authority to fix such errors. 

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Q: Won’t New Voices laws result in student media becoming the target of libel lawsuits?

A: Libel and other content-based lawsuits against student newspapers generally — and high school newspapers specifically — are extremely rare. To date, we are not aware of a single, reported court decision where a school district has been held liable for material published by its high school student media. As of 2019, there is now more than 170 years of combined history with these laws in the 14 New Voices states around the country, and if schools were being deluged by libel suits, we would certainly know it by now. They aren’t.

If a school district were genuinely worried about liability, they would be much better served by ending their football, cheerleading and other sports programs — which have sparked countless lawsuits — than worrying about their student media programs.

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Q: Shouldn’t we be able to stop student journalists from bullying or harassing other students?

A: Journalistic ethics is a key part of any journalism curriculum, and advisers retain the ability to work with student journalists to ensure that their work meets these ethical standards. Further, New Voices laws allow school administrators to intervene when there is a clear and present danger that the work of school journalists will incite others to violate a lawful school policy, as long as that intervention is based on articulable facts and concerns and not just a general fear.

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Q: Do New Voices laws protect my social media account?

A: Only if the account is sponsored by the school for student media purposes.

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