Q: What is New Voices?
A: New Voices is a nonpartisan student-driven grassroots effort to create state-based student free press protections and to prevent retaliation against advisers who stand up for student free press rights. It has led to student free press laws being passed in 14 states, with other administrative protections in place in Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C.. New Voices succeeds best with broad coalitions of supporters concerned with education, law, journalism, youth empowerment and civic engagement. Its name, “New Voices” was taken from the John Wall New Voices Act which was passed in North Dakota in 2015.
Q: How can I get involved?
A: There are several ways to get involved. Contact your state senator and representative to encourage them to support – and even co-sponsor – the New Voices Act. Encourage your local media to do stories about the movement and to editorialize in favor of the bill or simply connect with New Voices on Facebook and Twitter to keep up to date.
Q: Why is New Voices important?
A: Since 1988, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, schools have had an ever-expanding right to censor student publications. The Hazelwood court gave administrators the right to censor student publications which were sponsored by the school (like a formal class or an elective or a club with school funds) for “any reasonable legitimate pedagogical purpose.”
This vague standard could mean just about anything and has been misapplied to censor stories which are critical of the school administration, stories which may expose scandals in the school, or which may just make the school “look bad.” The standard is over-broad and has resulted in unwarranted censorship and restrictions on student publications at the hands of school administrators eager to control the image of their school.
Censorship is detrimental for students and society. Punishing students for their speech teaches them that censorship, often arbitrary and without limits, is acceptable. But in a society dependent on journalists and the public keeping the government in check, we cannot afford to have curiosity and confidence bred out of our students. We cannot afford to stifle today’s new voices because they are tomorrow’s media leaders and citizens.
Q: Don’t students already have First Amendment protections?
A: They do – but not as many as you think. 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 pro- tects 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. While Tinker creates broad rights for student speech and expression in school, Hazelwood specifically limits such speech at the discretion of school administrators when it is in a student publication. New Voices seeks to restore the Tinker standard to student publications.
Q: Why do students need freedom of the press?
A: As commercial news organizations continue to shed staff and struggle with economic sustainability, student journalists play an increasingly crucial role in covering local news. Students are the “embedded journalists,” letting their communities know how effectively schools and are performing. 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. Study after study demonstrates that the only effective way of teaching civics in schools is for students to discuss contemporary political issues — which is exactly what school censorship prevents. 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.
Q: Why should students have the same rights as experienced professionals?
A: They don’t. New Voices legislation recognizes that schools are unique settings. School officials are charged with making sure that students have a safe, effective place to learn and this legislation recognizes that the First Amendment rights of students in school are not the same as the rights of individual outside of school. Chiefly, this legislation ensures the orderly operation of schools by allowing school officials to restrict student speech that causes a material and substantial disruption of normal school activities. That standard comes straight out of a 1969 Supreme Court decision, Tinker v. Des Moines, where the Court intentionally sought to create a meaningful balance between the First Amendment rights of students and the responsibility of school officials to maintain an effective learning environment.
Q: How do New Voices laws work?
A: A New Voices statute simply provides a common-sense list of the harmful material that a school can restrict from student media, including libel or obscenity. These laws give students a measure of protection beyond the floor set by the Supreme Court in its 1988 Hazelwood decision, which has been discredited by every journalism education organization in America as an excessive level of control. 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.”
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.
Q: Why risk letting inexperienced students tread into complex issues or incidents that are upsetting to the school community or might offend some individuals?
A: Every student in every school in America has internet access. It’s impossible to keep students from being exposed to upsetting or offensive information by tearing pages out of newspapers or yearbooks. That’s just not the reality we live in today. 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 unlike on social media, school authorities are going to get their chance to be heard and present their side.
If we set the bar at “offensiveness” and we let schools remove anything that might offend one person in the audience, we’re going to dumb down media to Jack-and-Jill standards. Many people are concerned about the “snowflake syndrome” of easily offended college students shouting down speakers with disagreeable political views or forcing the cancellation of commencement speakers, and if you’re concerned that college students are inadequately tolerant of differing opinions, then New Voices is your bill. We can’t expect students to enter the workforce or head to college prepared to engage with challenging ideas if they’ve been told for the last 12 years that publishing challenging ideas is a punishable offense.
Q: Why should we not be able to intervene when student media is not consistently strong – with typographical errors – and perhaps much worse?
A: New Voices laws do not outlaw the process of “prior review” by school employees. So if journalism advisers think it’s important to look over the paper for errors before it goes online or on paper, they have the ability to do that. New Voices does not change that. The idea that students are going to insist on a “legal right to make typographical errors” misapprehends reality.
If the errors are not just typos but in fact “much worse,” the law allows for changes. For example, the “substantial disruption” standard would apply if a student journalist actually insisted on publishing the wrong date for the upcoming SAT test or the wrong location for the fire exits — again, no reason to ever think that any student has ever done, or would ever do, such a ridiculous thing once confronted with the error — 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 school retains full authority to fix them.
Q: Couldn’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. In fact, 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.
More to the point, New Voices laws explicitly protect the authority of schools to remove anything that might present a libel risk. The ability to pre-review a publication to remove libelous content is untouched by the law. The best of the New Voices laws go even further and provide, by statute, that the speech of student journalists is not legally attributable to the school.