By: Alyson Peabody, Editor-in-Chief
I want to ensure that all young people at the high school and collegiate level have an opportunity to explore journalism in a similar environment that is constructive, not restrictive. With help from legal representatives and other Maine advocates for press freedom, I am working to push forward New Voices of Maine.
My goal is to ensure that all young journalists at the high school and collegiate levels are legally protected so they can practice essential democratic values, leadership and ownership of their words in a safe environment.
Since 1988, New Voices has emerged as a student-powered nonpartisan grassroots movement of state-based activists who seek to protect student press freedom with state laws. They include advocates in law, education, journalism and civics who want schools and colleges to be more welcoming places for student voices. The United States Supreme Court ruled in 1988 during the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier case that school administrators have the right to censor student journalists for “any reasonable pedagogical purpose.” This phrase is vague and can be applied to any article that may spark controversy in the administration or beyond.
As of spring 2019, 14 states have passed New Voices to legally guaranteed press freedom for student journalists with codes protecting the rights of journalists in the District of Columbia and Pennsylvania.
The Society of Professional Journalists stated that schools need to enact more balanced policies, since “it is well-documented the Hazelwood censorship clause impedes an educator’s ability to adequately instruct and train students in professional journalistic values and practices.”
California and Kansas have passed laws to protect student newspapers from being punished by means of firing the adviser, cutting the budget, replacing the editor or any other act of intimidation by an administration, as long as it can be linked back to the editorial content of the publication.
There is an increasing need for covering local news as commercial news organizations cut staff and struggle with economic sustainability. Students are “embedded journalists” who can offer insight into how effectively schools are functioning internally. A 2009 Brookings Institution survey documents that just 1.4 percent of mainstream media is devoted to education news. If students are not free to disclose the shortcomings of their schools, the public is unlikely to find out.
High school journalists are covering misconduct allegations at their institutions. Students have broken stories about an administrator who lied about their qualifications to get a job, a guidance counselor with multiple counts of unprofessional conduct and a teacher who was fired for allegedly sending inappropriate texts to a student.
Research in 2014 by the University of Kansas documents that students who work in newsrooms that support press freedom report higher levels of civic effectiveness — the belief that they can use their voices to influence public policy.
Liability is usually an excuse for content control. Hiring a competent publication adviser is the best protection a school can have regarding libel or misinformation. An advisor can teach students about their legal responsibilities and distance themselves from the content decisions made by student editors.
New Voices does not outlaw the process of “prior review” by school employees. If advisers think it’s important to look over the paper for errors before it is published, they have the ability to do that. The law does not protect from typographical or factual errors that could cause “substantial disruption.” If the errors will really do any meaningful harm to the school’s ability to function, then the school retains full authority to fix them.
New Voices explicitly protects the authority of schools to remove anything that is a libel risk. The best of the New Voices laws go even further and provide, by statute, that the speech of student journalists is not legally attributable to the school.
One might ask, “why should students have the same rights as experienced professionals?”
Answer: They don’t.
New Voices legislation recognizes that schools are unique settings. School officials are charged with making sure that students have a place to learn and this legislation recognizes that the First Amendment rights of students in school are not the same as the rights of an individual outside of school.
This legislation ensures the orderly operation of schools by allowing officials to restrict student speech that causes a material and substantial disruption of normal school activities. That standard comes straight out of a 1969 Supreme Court decision, Tinker v. Des Moines, where the Court sought to create a meaningful balance between the First Amendment rights of students and the responsibility of school officials to maintain an effective learning environment.
New Voices has been endorsed by several national organizations including the American Bar Association, the Journalism Education Association, the Society of Professional Journalists and more.
I’ve been working with advocates for press freedom since the beginning of June. Frank LoMonte, the Senior Legal Fellow for the Student Press Law Center, has been an invaluable resource during this process. Samantha Warren, Director of Governmental Relations for the University of Maine System, said the next non-emergency legislative session begins December 2020.
We all agreed that it is important to begin the conversation now before any legal action can happen.
Ways to become involved in New Voices of Maine are to contact state senators and representatives to encourage them to support – and even co-sponsor – the New Voices Act. Encourage local media to do stories about the movement and to editorialize in favor of the bill or simply connect with New Voices of Maine on Facebook to keep up to date.