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Knowing what New Voices means helps students grow louder in their fight for rights


by Tom McHale

We’ve Passed New Voices, Now What?
New Jersey passed student rights legislation in 2021, but only some teachers, administrators and students know the law’s protections. What can all advisers do to ensure student journalists know their rights and how to use them?

Busch Student Center’s Multipurpose Room A buzzed with the chatter of approximately 300 student journalists and advisers. They awaited the start of a Keynote panel that would kick off the Garden State Scholastic Press Association’s Fall Conference at Rutgers University. The 2022 conference was our first in-person since the pandemic and the first since New Voices passed in New Jersey in December 2021.

Moderator Bonnie Blackman took the mic and, after welcoming everyone, asked one question: “How many of you know what New Voices is?” 

About a third of the hands in the room went up. 

This wasn’t too surprising. The panel was titled “Know Your Rights: The New Jersey New Voices Act and featured Hillary Davis, Advocacy and Organizing Director for the Student Press Law Center, student NV leader Sara Fajardo, John Tagliereni and myself.

State Senator Nia Gill speaks to students during the Keynote Panel discussion on New Voices at GSSPA’s Fall Conference at Rutgers University Oct. 24, 2022. Senator Gill was a primary sponsor of New Jersey’s New Voices bill signed into law in December 2021. Photo by Bonnie Blackman.

John and I had worked on this legislation for eight years, and this conference was our first opportunity to celebrate and spread the word about its passage. 

One year later, a similar scene unfolded.

Students filled the room and awaited the start of a panel titled “Where Journalism Can Take You.” The panel featured young professionals from various fields: law, politics, journalism, writing, speaking and education. As I welcomed the students and prepared to introduce the panel, I asked the audience the same question:
“How many of you know what New Voices is?” 
About 10 hands went up.

“I’m sorry. I have to ask that one more time,” I said.  “How many of you have heard of New Voices?”
This time, the 10 hands were joined by two more who raised their hands hesitantly.

New Jersey, we have a problem!

Passing Student Rights Legislation is Only the Beginning
Later that day, another New Voices leader (and aide to Governor Murphy), Katy Temple, John Tagliereni and I discussed ways to spread the word about what New Voices means for students, advisers and scholastic journalism. After all, having a law isn’t effective if students don’t know what their rights are and how to use the law to defend themselves against administrative interference or censorship. 

Some of the initial ideas we brainstormed, included going into schools to talk to student journalists and reaching out to the NJ Principal and Supervisors Association and NJ Association of School Administrators to better educate their members about what the law requires and how providing student journalists with editorial control can revitalize scholastic journalism programs.

We also wondered how other states have dealt with this issue. After all,14 states passed student rights legislation before New Jersey, and two passed New Voices shortly after us.

To answer this question, I reached out to Davis, who has worked with New Voices state leaders at the SPLC since October 2019. In that time, Davis saw three states pass New Voices legislation (New Jersey, Hawaii and West Virginia), supported numerous legislative campaigns, and worked to support education activities for the 17 states that currently have student press rights legislation.

Davis said what we experienced in New Jersey is common among New Voices states. Educating students, advisers, teachers, principals and superintendents about the rights of student journalists and the protections that New Voices ensures is part of an ongoing and never-ending process. 

Davis pointed to a couple of things New Voices states have tried that have been successful: 

  • Ensuring there is a standing curriculum about New Voices that is easy to teach and understand.
  • Using state and national conferences to teach about the law.

“But outside of that, I’m not really sure that anyone has hit on that sweet spot quite yet,” she said. 

Davis wants a uniform, easy training program for teachers and students. She suggests using this resource that SPLC has developed. The webpage contains a “Know Your Rights” presentation section that contains slideshows customized to each of the seventeen states that have passed student press rights legislation. 

“You can find the guide for your state and then also a scripted plug-and-play presentation that literally anybody can take and just use,” she said.

The slideshows contain informational slides (along with a short video) that can be used as the basis for activities and lesson plans on New Voices. Here’s the slideshow for New Jersey.

Davis would also love to see training developed not only for advisers but for superintendents and principals as well. “They don’t know about the law,” she said. And to me, the worst thing that could possibly happen is somebody doesn’t know about the law and violates it because they didn’t know. And I don’t ever want to see that happen.” 

A lightly edited version of the full interview with Hillary Davis appears below.

Know (and Teach) Student Rights
Students must know their rights, and schools are responsible for teaching them. Unfortunately, too often this doesn’t happen. At a time when many states mandate curriculum and lesson plans on media literacy and civics, teaching students about their rights and how to use them seems more important than ever. If we want to guide our students to become better citizens in our democratic society, they must learn about their rights, ethics and responsibilities. And they must be allowed to practice them.

Davis likes to use the analogy of a new driver to illustrate why this is necessary. “When you’re trying to teach a kid how to drive a car, you don’t stick them in the backseat and just show them,” she said. “You put them behind the wheel with an adult next to them, and you let them make mistakes, and you call them out on it. You prevent them from hurting anybody.” 

This also relates to censorship: If you know the rules of the road, you can defend yourself if a police officer pulls you over. And if you know your student press rights, you can protect yourself against someone who is trying to restrict your expression. 

“I think making sure that students know about this is important because they need to know the guardrails,” Davis said. “They need to know when something is being done to them that’s inappropriate and they need to know when they’re messing up. They need to know what they’re not allowed to say, too.” 

What if your state isn’t protected by New Voices or you are in a private school?
Students and advisers in states without New Voices (or other protections) still need to know their rights and district policies that govern scholastic publications. These policies are public records. Often, they can be found online simply by searching “Student Journalism” or “Scholastic Publications” and the name of your school district. If this doesn’t work, go to your district website and search the policies section. If your district doesn’t have the policies online, ask a Board representative to help you find the policy. They must provide them to you.

 “I think students are very often surprised to find out that their existing school policy is more protective of Student Press rights than they’re being told,” Davis said. “Your principal does not necessarily actually know what your policy says, and they could be wrong. And it’s important for you to know that just as it’s important for you to know what your dress code says.”

But unlike the dress code, your district’s publication policy is probably not in the student handbook.

Knowing this policy and the school mission statement is even more critical at private schools where the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood decision does not govern them. Private schools make promises to students and parents through their mission statement and policies.

“So if your school is out there, as a private school saying, we really foster independent thought, and we really foster civic-mindedness, you can point to that and say, “Your censorship is violating the school’s mission statement,”’ Davis said. 

And since parents often pay significant tuition, arguing that the school isn’t fulfilling their promises can be easier than in a public school. Scholastic publications and student press rights should reflect the school’s goals and mission.

What else can be done?
In New Jersey, we plan to use Scholastic Journalism Week (February 19-23) to publicize New Voices’s impact. The Garden State Scholastic Press Association will promote posts through social media and our website that celebrate New Voices and scholastic journalism programs in the state. The week culminates with Student Freedom Day (February 23), in which we will prepare an easy-to-implement lesson plan that teaches students about their rights under New Voices.

We also look for opportunities to present to some of the administrative associations in our state. The New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association hosts a conference in the Fall with the Foundation for Educational Administration and the New Jersey Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Ideally, The conference allows us to address several organizations (some of which opposed New Voices) to educate administrators about how the law limits their oversight of student publications and promote the positive impact a robust, student-run scholastic journalism program can have in their schools. 

How can our supporters help
Several organizations (on both the national and state levels) supported our efforts to get New Voices passed in New Jersey. Why not involve them in educating everyone involved now that it is a law?

The New Jersey  Education Association was an influential advocate of New Voices. It may not have passed without their support. Davis believes they can play an essential role in educating their members.

“I think the unions need to know because very often they’re going to be that first line of defense,” she said. And one thing we’ve seen in California is the unions didn’t know about their law, and their law is 45 years old at this point.” The GSSPA hopes to present a session on New Voices at the NJEA Convention next November.

The JEA was another essential supporter of New Voices. Is training on New Voices, student press rights and how to educate students about their district’s scholastic publications policy a part of the Certification (CJE) process? If not, could it be added? After all, some states require journalism teachers to be certified. For others, their districts may require or encourage them to become a Certified Journalism Educator.

Davis discussed with some state leaders about obtaining continuing education hours for teachers and administrators so they become trained in student press rights.

“ I think it’s very different state to state,” she said. “But figuring out that incentive will net us big benefits in the long run.”

The National Council of Teachers of English passed a resolution supporting New Voices legislation in 2017. We hope they can now be involved in educating their members about the law requirements and benefits of scholastic journalism.

“So many of the journalism teachers come from the English teacher world,” Davis said. “And so even if they don’t get this information through JEA, and they don’t get it through a certification process, to get it through NCTE could be quite helpful.”  

“I also find that sometimes you need to hear the same information from multiple touch points,” she added.

Remember to celebrate success.
Finally, Davis reminded me to appreciate how far we’ve come. The fact that we are even discussing “how we build this perpetual motion machine to teach these kids is an incredible victory,” she said.

At the same time, the law makes success stories less visible.

“It’s important that we talk about our victories large and small because we’re not going to have that many big controversial censorship cases that come out and are a big thing for New Voices,” Davis said. “But we can talk about the small times that students knew their rights and they were able to push back.

She mentioned a session at the JEA Convention in Boston, in which some of the students knew how the law protected them and how they could push back against attempts at censorship. Davis remembered how the others in that room reacted. 

“It’s like, oh my gosh, it’s that easy? I just have to pull out this law and say, ‘No, you can’t do that?’ And that’s never going to be front-page news,” she said. But it really, truly can be that easy. We need to normalize fighting back against censorship in these really small ways.” 

An idea and invitation to New Voices states
This got me thinking back to the one-minute #CureHazelwood video JEA and the SPLC put out in 2018 featuring very short statements by students, teachers, and administrators about why student press rights are essential. 

What if the 17 states that have passed student press legislation contributed to a similar video? It could feature small stories of using the legislation to push back or answer the question: Why is our states’ student rights legislation important to me?

The video could be powerful in its own way. I would love to put this video together. Reach out to me if you are interested.

Tom McHale is a retired journalism educator from New Jersey and president of the Garden State Scholastic Press Association. He can be reached at