Nevada’s New Voices bill, Senate Bill 420, passed the state Legislature last week, awaiting only the governor’s signature before it becomes law.
The bill, which passed the General Assembly on Wednesday and the Senate on Thursday, is set to take effect Oct. 1. It will extend First Amendment freedoms to student journalists at colleges, public high schools and charter schools.
The bill preserves schools’ authority to prohibit speech in student media that’s unlawful, such as bullying, or that substantially disrupts the establishment from executing its educational mission.
Both the Nevada Press Association and the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors support Nevada’s New Voices bill.
Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro (D-Las Vegas) sponsored the bill in March and more recently amended it to address concerns about an initial version that appeared to expose journalists and advisers to disciplinary action for how people react to journalistic speech.
The bill was revised to clarify punitive action can’t be taken against students acting in accordance with the law, even if their conduct unintentionally leads to a substantial disruption of school.
If a student violates the policy purposefully, than administrators can employ consequences as harsh as suspension and expulsion.
Advisers for publications also can’t be retaliated against for doing their jobs so long as they adhere to the law. A journalism instructor can’t face adverse personnel action for supporting students and their legally protected work, or for refusing to do something that would violate the law.
Language was deleted that might have been interpreted to allow the installation of a pre-publication restraint based on whether the students’ content would substantially disrupt school.
Assemblywoman Lisa Krasner of the House Education Committee said during the bill’s work session she was concerned about the leniency for disciplinary action against students when the publication disrupts school.
“That concerns me, not so much at the college level or at the university level, but because we’re taking into account here the high school level,” Krasner said. She voted against the bill in the committee work session.
Assemblyman Keith Pickard, who said he was once a student journalist, also said he was concerned with too much freedom in high school publications, as opposed to college journalists, whom he said were quasi-professionals.
“At the high school level, these really need to be directed by the school’s individual teachers because it’s more instructive,” Pickard said. “They’re trying to lay out where the appropriate boundaries are and I just see mischief being had here.”
In response to the concerns, Assemblyman Elliot Anderson said the bill provides schools with the proper amount of discretion and student journalists weren’t students “running amok.”
“It requires the board of trustees of charter schools, the governing bodies of universities to create the policy … they are setting the parameters for how this should go,” Anderson said. “I think that the school has a fair amount of policy or rather a fair amount of discretion in how exactly this is going to work.”
Patrick File, who’s a professor of media law at the University of Nevada, Reno, said this bill will change the standard of schools’ discretion from the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier standard to the Tinker v. Des Moines standard, and it will better reflect the decades of experience that supports extending First Amendment freedoms, and responsibilities, to students as young as high school.
“These concerns about student journalists running amok just haven’t come to be,” File said, referencing Anderson’s defense of the bill. “(Research) has found that there really is not anything to be worried about by extending and expanding the free speech rights of student journalists.”
File said his students from California public schools, which use the Tinker standard, are often confused and shocked when they hear stories from their classmates from Nevada who had articles censored because principals disagreed with their views or found stories unflattering to the school.
File said actions like inciting students to walk out of classes, disrupt school events or target individuals would qualify as a disruption, even under the Tinker standard, because it interferes with the school’s ability to educate students.
However, criticizing the school or expressing political views is the essence of the protections the Tinker case established.
The bill passed unanimously in the Senate, and passed the General Assembly with a vote of 30-11. On Thursday, the Senate then concurred on a voice vote to accept House-passed clarifying amendments, sending the bill onto Gov. Brian Sandoval. Once the bill is formally transmitted to the governor, he has five business days to act on it, and if there’s no action, then the bill automatically becomes law.
Pickard voted in favor of the bill despite his hesitation in the education committee workshop, but Krasner maintained her opposition and voted against it.
Marjorie Kirk is a staff writer for the Student Press Law Center, a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists.