How a new campaign is trying to strengthen the rights of student journalists

The recent controversy at Mount St. Mary’s University is just the latest reminder—if one were needed—that student journalists in many places remain vulnerable to threats of interference and censorship. But a movement to change that is seeing some signs of success. New Voices USA, a project of the Student Press Law Center, is working with advocates in education, law, and journalism to push for state legislation that would give young people clearer rights to gather and share information about matters of public concern—without undue interference from school officials. 

The campaign is inspired by the John Wall New Voices Act, which passed in 2015 in North Dakota. Since then, advocates have launched New Voices campaigns in 18 states, and bills have been introduced in six: Nebraska, Washington, Missouri, Maryland, Illinois, and New Jersey. In Missouri and Washington, the bills have passed their respective committees.

The state bills vary in some ways, but in general they track model legislation crafted by the SPLC, an advocacy group. (I occasionally provide legal representation to student journalists through the SPLC, but I’m not involved in the campaign.) The model legislation is designed to do three things—one aimed at student journalists in high school, one at public colleges, and one at private colleges.

First, it effectively repudiates the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood decision, in which the court ruled that school administrators could censor student speech if restrictions were “reasonably related to a legitimate pedagogical concern.” The legislation says, instead, the earlier Tinker standard should be restored in public high schools. That standard protects student speech unless it is libelous, invades a person’s privacy, or creates a “clear and present danger” of a “material and substantial disruption” of school activities. Eleven states already have such a law on the books.

Second, the legislation protects public college and university students from court decisions that have applied Hazelwood in the higher-education environment. As I pointed out in The Atlantic in 2013, writing with Frank LoMonte of the SPLC, four federal courts of appeals (covering 16 states) have extended Hazelwood that way, and only one has rejected such an extension. The basic problem, as we wrote then, is that Hazelwood was framed in terms of protecting children from “sensitive topics,” but college students are mostly adults. We simply shouldn’t accept a system in which campus speech can be so easily limited—especially when college student-journalists increasingly are being asked to help address the news needs of their communities.

Third, the legislation applies the speech rights that public college and university students receive to their counterparts at private colleges and universities. California’s Leonard Law did that very thing in 1992, enabling students to file civil lawsuits against their schools to obtain relief from infringements of their freedom of speech. The campaign aims to bring those protections to other states.

The New Voices website says that each of the three parts is “independent of the others and is based on different case law and situations.” Further, the site says the movement’s goal is “to approach the New Voices Act as comprehensive educational legislation that will benefit students at each stage of their development, while recognizing the differences between each educational environment.”

Opponents have said the legislation goes too far by stripping schools of their oversight responsibilities. For example, at a public hearing in Washington about the New Voices bill pending there, a representative of the Association of Washington School Principals, said, “The school district is the publisher and therefore should have some control over what is published, just like a [professional] publisher would with their editors and reporters.” 

But supporters maintain that student journalism is a valuable check on school mismanagement, and an important source of coverage for other newsworthy events on campus. LoMonte, of the SPLC, points to the efforts of high school journalists in New Jersey to bring to light misconduct complaints against a school superintendent. “If we’re going to ask students to fulfill the responsibility of being front-line newsgatherers—and, often, not pay them anything for it—the least we can do is send them out into the field with the confidence of meaningful legal protection,” he said.

And when Tim Tai, the photojournalist who was obstructed as he sought to record protests at the University of Missouri in the fall, testified in support of the New Voices bill before state lawmakers, he noted that national outlets coming late to the story relied on coverage by student journalists.

“For years, student reporters have been treated as second-class journalists,” Tai said, “and that’s a shame, because they are often the only ones tackling crucial issues in schools and on campuses.”

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Jonathan Peters is CJR's press freedom correspondent. An attorney, he is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, where he teaches and researches media law and policy, with an affiliate research position exploring big data and Internet governance in the KU Information & Telecommunication Technology Center. Peters has blogged on free expression for the Harvard Law & Policy Review, and he has written for Esquire, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, Slate, The Nation, Wired, and PBS. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanwpeters.