Washington New Voices bill passes House committee by slim margin

WASHINGTON — After passing through the House Judiciary Committee with a narrow 7 to 6 vote on Feb. 22, Washington’s New Voices bill is nearing the finish line. 

New Voices is a student-powered movement to give student journalists protection from censorship. New Voices legislation has passed in 13 states.

The slim margin came after two legislators urged the committee to vote no, citing issues with the changes made to the bill, including adding discriminatory or bullying speech to the list of exemptions not protected by the bill.

Substitute Senate Bill 5064 will now head to the House Rules Committee to be scheduled for a vote by the full House. If the House passes the bill, it will head back to the Senate for a vote on the amended bill. In 2017, the bill passed through the Senate, but the House Education Committee decided not to vote on the bill, effectively killing it.

But in a new year — and with a different committee — the bill is moving on. Kathy Schrier, the executive director of the Washington Journalism Education Association, said she’s more optimistic about the bill than she ever has been, but she’s still nervous.

“We have moved a little bit forward this time, but we’ve died in Rules in the past,” Schrier said. 

Several of the bill’s supporters testified in front of the Judiciary Committee at a hearing Feb. 14, including Haley Keizur, a senior at Puyallup High School and editor-in-chief of The Viking Vanguard. 

Keizur said she also testified in 2017 in the Senate Education Committee. She said it was nerve wracking, but it’s important for the legislators to hear the first-hand accounts of student journalists. She said her publication has been the victim of both administrative censorship and self-censorship.

But even though the bill skated through committee on a slim margin, she’s optimistic the bill will pass and end those practices.

“It’s made a lot more progress already since last year, so that’s good to see,” Keizur said. “I hope they realize the need for it in public schools.”

Jacoy Willis, now a student at the University of Washington, also spoke to the committee in support of the bill and her experiences with prior review in high school. She said the close vote made her nervous, but she remains hopeful.

“This is very important for student education and journalism in general going forward,” she said. “It’s a little more nerve wracking, but it still passed.”

Washington’s New Voices bill has been in the works for more than a decade. As a college student in 2007, Brian Schraum was heavily involved in the initial push to get the bill passed. He said the current bill is in as good a shape as any of its predecessors have been.

“It really seems like the stars are aligning,” Schraum said. "I hesitate to jinx it, but it certainly seems like things are falling into place in a way that they weren’t when we were first getting started with this.”

There was heavy opposition when the bill was first proposed, Schraum said. Groups representing school administrators were particularly involved, writing op-ed pieces and lobbying in committee meetings.

No individuals testified against the bill during the Feb. 14 hearing, though representatives from the Washington Association of School Principals did cite some concerns and submitted some possible changes to the committee.

Some of the concerns voiced in the hearing appeared in the amendment. The amendment, which was passed with a voice vote, gives public school administrators power to censor speech that incites unlawful behavior, violates the Federal Communications Act or that is deemed to be discriminatory or bullying. 

The amendment also allows administrators at public colleges to censor speech that “incites students as to create a clear and present danger of the violation of lawful school policies and procedures.”

Schrier said she has concerns about how administrators might use the exceptions added by the amendment

“It would be easy to use as an excuse for censorship,” Schrier said.

SPLC staff writer Taylor Potter can be reached by email or at (202) 478-1926. He is on Twitter @wmtaylorpotter.

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Puyallup High School senior Haley Keizur testifies in front of the Washington House Judiciary Committee on Feb. 14.