Gov. Brian Sandoval has signed the New Voices Senate Bill 420 into law in Carson City at Nevada’s 78th legislative session, extending press freedom for high-school and college journalists and advisers.
Effective Oct. 1, SB 420 will protect student journalists and advisers from administrative censorship as well as protect advisers from punishment for what their students write or say; it will also prohibit shutting down stories (including stopping printing or distribution) or penalizing whistleblowing speech that could make a school look bad, says the Student Press Law Center.
“Although many students in our state have not experienced outright censorship, working under the Hazelwood standard, there always loomed the idea that censorship could at any moment rear its head,” said Christy Briggs, who teaches English and journalism and advises the student newspaper at Reno High School.
Previously, schools could censor their student media in the name of image control based on a 1980s U.S. Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.
Briggs added the clarifying language that exists in SB 420 emboldens students to investigate more avenues of journalism and explore the various angles each story idea inevitably presents.
Patrick File, a University of Nevada, Reno journalism professor who pushed for the bill, said it was “thrilling to see so many folks from all around the state come together to support” student journalism.
“It was really a movement to make sure active, engaged citizenship can happen in our schools,” File said. “From the beginning, I think students, parents, teachers, administrators and lawmakers appreciated the context here: we need responsible and accountable journalism in times of political fervor or on uncomfortable or controversial issues, and we need the First Amendment to make that happen.”
The professor said it was a pleasure to work with the bill’s sponsor, State Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, and added he thought she saw the bill as a way students could take a more lively and meaningful role in their education.
“Thank you to everyone who has worked on this bill,” the senator said, “from helping to draft language, to reviewing language, to showing up to hearings, to calling representatives and the governor urging support! I could not have helped to get this legislation passed without all of the hard work so many people have put into this effort.
“I am thrilled to see the governor sign SB 420, and proud to be a part of what I truly believe is really wonderful legislation.”
File thanked Student Press Law Center Executive Director, attorney Frank LoMonte, for his “tireless enthusiasm and on-the-spot expertise” as well as for “planting the seed of an idea with a handful of us a little over a year ago.”
The bill will not put students in the same category as professional journalists. Schools can still punish speech that is defamatory, invades privacy, indicates disruptive or unlawful conduct, or interferes with orderly school operation — “the same common-sense level of authority that schools have over expression on students’ T-shirts,” says the Student Press Law Center.
A related case that gained national attention occurred in 2010 in Fallon when Churchill County High School editor Lauren McLean (now Draper) researched, wrote and published a story on the selection of CCHS students for the state honor choir. The administration supported her right to publish despite Churchill County Education Association’s objection.
“The state of Nevada passing SB 420 is not only a victory for student journalism rights but also a victory for the local communities and schools those students serve,” said Draper, who testified at the legislature.
Through a series of Fallon newspaper stories, columns and editorials, the Lahontan Valley News supported both the First Amendment rights of Draper to exercise her responsibility as a student journalist and the Churchill County School District — to include former Superintendent Carolyn Ross and high-school principal Kevin Lords.
The LVN received an NPA First Amendment Award in 2010 for supporting Draper and CCSD’s rights.
The LVN, Nevada Appeal and Record Courier avidly supported SB 420 while the Nevada Appeal’s Geoff Dornan contributed to the issue’s coverage and continued reporting, said LVN editor and general manager Steve Ranson.
Ranson testified twice before the Assembly and Senate education committees on behalf of the Nevada Press Association and the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, both organizations strongly supporting the bill. He also wrote and called numerous legislatures in the Assembly and Senate. (Ranson is the past NPA president and the incoming ISWNE president.)
“Patrick File put together a great team that was dedicated in seeking passage of SB 420, so that young journalists could enjoy some of the protection their older counterparts in professional journalism receive,” Ranson said. “The NPA and ISWNE are vigorous defenders of the First Amendment, and through testimony and letters from both organizations and friends of the bill, we were able to gain bi-partisan support.”
LoMonte said he hoped the reform would continue to reverberate beyond the state. Ten states already have New Voices laws and another 20 have active campaigns.
“As an adviser,” Briggs added, “it is encouraging to know that with this new law, I can encourage students to more freely dive into writing about controversial topics; I can, without fear of retaliation, support students who want to thoughtfully criticize policies, practices and decisions they disagree with. I am proud to be a journalism teacher in a state that has decided that the voices of our students matter.”
Draper described how the bill encourages students to seek and report truthful information for public interest instead of being terrified to do so due to unnecessary censorship.
“I was once called a ‘zealous child’ for seeking and reporting the truth,” she said, “but now can proudly say, ‘fear no more!’”
Supporters look forward to past censorship capabilities falling away in schools nationwide and unnecessary censorship examples disappearing, including moving away from less structured discussion via social media.
“Personally, I’m excited to see how students in the First Amendment classes I teach bring a more fulsome and active understanding of their rights into my classroom,” File said. “I just hope the law isn’t so effective I put myself out of a job!”