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New Voices: Learning the lessons

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by Candace Perkins Bowen, MJE
There’s good news . . . and then there’s news when it comes to New Voices bills to protect student journalists.

First, the exciting part. Chris Evans, from the University of Vermont and chairman of College Media Association’s First Amendment Advocacy, posted Friday, May 5 on the New Voices USA Facebook page: “Today, Vermont’s New Voices legislation passed BOTH the Senate and House of Representatives. Student free-speech activism FTW!”

And a win it is. As Frank LoMonte reported on the SPLC website, “After months of back-and-forth, student press protections are on their way to the governor’s desk in Vermont.”

The article explains that this was part of “an omnibus education bill” and will now move to Gov. Phil Scott, “who is expected to sign it into law,” SPLC.org reports.

The fourth New Voices bill to get this far since North Dakota started the momentum in 2015, Vermont’s law would give protection to student journalists in K-12 schools and public colleges plus protection to faculty advisers who refuse to censor the legally protected work of their students.

But the other news demonstrates some of the challenges for those attempting to pass similar legislation in their states. Nevada and Michigan both have active bills at the time, but for varied reasons, they are still in process.

Patrick File, a media law professor at University of Nevada, Reno and former SPLC intern, said the way Nevada’s legislature operates creates a couple of challenges. First, the Senate and Assembly meet only every other year. “It’s an absolute sprint for 120 days from February to June,” File said.

File worked with LoMonte, plus a UNLV associate professor, the executive director of the Nevada Press Association and an attorney from the SPLC attorney network to find Senator Nicole Cannizzaro, who was willing and able to sponsor the bill.

File found support from high school advisers in both Reno and Las Vegas. Casandra Workman, CJE, spoke at a Senate committee hearing in Las Vegas, where she teaches, to “address some of the concerns” that had come up. Liz Walsh, MJE from Reno, wrote testimony and Christy Briggs, MJE, also from Reno, took students to the Senate session..

Senate Bill 420 was drafted, as all Nevada’s bills are, by the Legislative Counsel Bureau, a group of lawyers working for the legislators. Although the original bill had been patterned after the successful one in Maryland, the LCB later added amendments its members thought would improve the bill.

Not so, said File and others. Included was language that essentially requires prior review and a disciplinary process for students and advisers (but not administrators) who would prohibit free press.

As of Monday, May 8, File indicated some confidence that LCB would remove the problematic amendments, and the bill could go to the Assembly.

“My takeaway,“ File said, “is the need to be the eyes and ears of the sponsor, who’s not always as knowledgeable about student media and has 20 or 30 bills to follow, but we only have one. We have to stay on top of the language.”

Jeremy Steele, Michigan Interscholastic Press Association executive director, said, “A lot things can happen during the legislative process, and every New Voices campaign will be thrown at least one curve ball. Expect a surprise. Plan for it as best you can.”

That state currently has a bill in the House, sponsored by a Democrat, Rep. Darrin Camilleri, a former high school social studies teacher, “so this bill speaks to issues that he’s passionate about,” Steele said.

The challenge here? Republicans far outnumber Democrats in the Michigan House, 100 to 63.

But Steele and those in Michigan working on New Voices say they appreciate Camilleri’s interest and “look forward to finding ways to work with him.”

Meanwhile, Steele said they have a good record from last year with bipartisan support in the Senate. The previous sponsor, Sen. Rick Jones, chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee and is now working with them on a new version of the bill to “address many of the concerns we heard from stakeholders last session,” Steele said.

Sharing lessons learned like these seems to be one thing that’s helping current legislation move forward. Steve Listopad, then from North Dakota and the driving force between the first New Voices legislation, maintains a website that also contains helpful content from the SPLC.

Other useful tips come in videos from a November 2016 symposium hosted by Kent State University’s Center for Scholastic Journalism. Student media advisers at both the high school and college levels, scholastic press association leaders, lobbyists and others concerned with student voices from 17 states and the District of Columbia, participated. Videos captured all the panels, including one sponsored in part by JEA: “Part 6: Getting Advisers/Students/Scholastic Press Associations Engaged.”

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