New Voices press freedom bills advance in Vermont, Indiana, Washington



Bills protecting student journalists against censorship took giant steps forward in Vermont, Indiana and Washington this week. 

Though the bills are all slightly different, their common purpose is to limit the grounds on which a public college or high school can censor the content of school-sponsored media, and to protect faculty advisers against retaliatory personnel actions for their students' journalistic work. The bills also insulate schools and colleges against liability for what their students publish. Such statutes are already on the books in 10 states, three of them newly enacted since 2015.

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Student editors told Indiana's House Education Committee at a Feb. 14 hearing of pressure conveyed to their staffs to avoid criticizing school policies, which led to "self-censorship"

Senate Bill 18 by Sen. Jeanette White passed the Vermont Senate Wednesday without opposition, and was sent to the House Education Committee. The bill has been relatively uncontroversial, and student journalists took a leading role in testifying before the Senate Education Committee in support of the measure. Newspapers across the state, including the Caledonian Record, have urged lawmakers to enact the bill, which also picked up an endorsement from the national board of the Journalism Education Association.

In Indiana, the House Education Committee voted 13-0 Thursday for HB 1130 by Reps. Ed Clere and Ed DeLaney, which largely tracks the New Voices of North Dakota Act that inspired the nationwide New Voices reform movement. 

The vote followed supportive testimony from the Hoosier State Press Association, the state high-school and college press associations, and a string of college and high-school editors and advisers, including teacher Amy Sorrell, who recounted how a student's opinion column calling for greater tolerance for LGBT students led to her firing: "I lost my job defending my student. I printed that article 10 years ago. I would print it today."

Amendments were added in the Education Committee enabling K-12 schools to remove material from student media that is "gratuitously profane," and making clear that press freedom applies only at the middle- and high-school levels and not in elementary schools. With those changes, the bill passed the committee without objection and is headed to the House floor, although it faces continued opposition from the Indiana School Boards Association. 

Meanwhile in Washington, Senate Bill 5064 by Sen. Joe Fain cleared the Senate Early Learning & K-12 Education Committee Thursday, just ahead of a drop-dead deadline that could have killed it for the year.

Lobbyists for the Washington State School Directors Association sought to amend the bill to allow school districts to essentially opt themselves out of press-freedom protection by local policy, a change opposed by the Washington Journalism Education Association. Instead, the committee settled on a more modest set of amendments clarifying the limits of students' rights, including specifying that student broadcasters must abide by FCC content regulations. The amendments also respond to a concern that editorial endorsements by student media might place school districts in violation of a state prohibition on using taxpayer money to support political causes, stating that "political expression by students in school sponsored media may not be deemed the use of public funds for political purposes."

The bill has picked up numerous endorsements from the professional media, including the Seattle Times, whose editors wrote: "Now more than ever the nation needs a vigorous press and smart, civically engaged young citizens." It now heads to the Senate Rules Committee, which determines the schedule for Senate floor votes.

A comparable bill died in committee in Washington last session.

New Voices bills also are advancing in Arizona and Missouri, and pending in Michigan and New Jersey, with new filings in Minnesota and Nevada expected shortly. The measures have been boosted by endorsements from the American Society of News Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists and other civic and educational organizations around the country. 

To get involved in the New Voices movement, visit www.newvoicesus.com, with resources and contact information for each active state campaign.

Tagged: new voices, news, press freedom, recent-news