Students propose New Voices Act: University of Jamestown group pushes free speech bill to state Legislature
JAMESTOWN — A group of University of Jamestown students hopes to protect freedom of speech for North Dakota students through the New Voices Act.
If passed, the three-pronged law would protect speech for students attending public and private colleges and universities, as well as high school students.
Advocates are still working on the text of the law, gathering support for it and preparing to bring it to legislators for vetting as soon as this summer.
“It certainly would put North Dakota in a national position for leadership as having one of the strongest and best laws protecting student expressions,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.
The origins of the New Voices Act go back to the 2003-04 academic year, and, improbably, Las Vegas, where some Jamestown College students attended a conference about the student press.
Among other things, they learned about the long history of conflict over student speech in high schools and colleges and the court cases that have come to define the rights of youths to express themselves at school.
Those rights have shifted over time, according to Steve Listopad, assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Jamestown.
The landmark Tinker v. Des Moines case of 1969, in which students tried to wear black armbands to school to protest the Vietnam War, ended with the U.S. Supreme Court’s determination that the First Amendment does apply to public schools and students retain their right to freedom of speech.
Later cases, including Bethel School District v. Fraser in 1986, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier in 1988 and Hosty v. Carter in 2005, chipped away at those rights.
Fraser and Hazelwood both limited speech for high school students — Fraser for individuals and Hazelwood for student publications. Hosty extended Hazelwood’s limitations to college newspapers.
After Hazelwood and Hosty, school administrators had the power to censor student media.
“You have more freedom to wear a T-shirt than to write an editorial on your school,” Listopad said.
Since that conference, the idea of creating legislation to protect students has persisted, and the Civic and Citizen Journalism class decided to pursue the idea.
Six students were involved — Peter Odney, Jesse Boyle, Dan Arens, Ashley Domino, Masaki Ova and Josh Berg, who has since died.
“These students put a lot of thought into this,” Listopad said.
Private colleges and universities A number of organizations have lined up to support the proposed law — including the University of Jamestown, which would be affected by the legislation.
“We’re very committed to the principle,” UJ President Bob Badal said.
Badal arrived at the university 11 years ago, and at that time, he said, there was no journalism program and no faculty adviser for The Collegian, the school’s newspaper.
He suspended the publication, stating that when he learned what was going to be produced in the paper, he “felt it was not illustrative of what a college newspaper should be about.”
The school created a board of student media in 2004 that includes five students and four staff members. The board convened, reviewed the paper, made changes and the paper was published — still including a number of negative articles.
“The feeling was that they had taken out most of the offensive materials, things that were potentially damaging to the community that we were part of, and had at least turned it into just a negative newspaper — which we see many examples of around the country every day,” Badal said.
Since then, UJ has developed a journalism program and committed to training media professionals.
“Because of that commitment, I am personally also committed, as I told Steve (Listopad), to the principles behind the New Voices Act, because we aren’t going to train journalists if we aren’t serious about it, and we want them to have the same freedom that we would expect them to have in the real world,” Badal said.
The law’s text has yet to be written, Badal said, noting that he would not endorse heavy fines as punishment, but if lawbreakers were publicly humiliated they would probably deserve it.
“We’re a private school, but we’re very committed to a professional journalism program here — and that means our students are going to enjoy protection from within,” Badal said. “Even without this law, they’re living this law today.”
Three parts, many opinions Not all of the students agreed on all three parts of the law, either.
Some didn’t support unfettered freedom of speech for high school students, and others questioned the wisdom of forcing free speech on private institutions, to which the First Amendment would normally not apply.
In the end, however, the students agreed to move forward with all three portions of the law — including those affecting public colleges and universities, private colleges and universities and high schools.
“I’m more conservative in my political and overall standings, so I was a little more unsure about high schools and private schools and private colleges,” Arens said.
Eventually, Arens changed his mind on the portion of the law concerning high school students, “because high school students are going to talk about these topics one way or another,” and a professional venue seems to be better than gossip.
But life skills and learning responsibility have to begin while people are young adults, so they can be prepared for issues they’ll encounter in their future communities, said Jeremy Murphy, coordinator of the Northern Interscholastic Press Association.
Murphy was removed from his position as adviser of the student paper at West Fargo High School after administrators became unhappy with student coverage of sensitive topics.
He remained an English teacher and yearbook adviser at the school, and he was later reinstated as adviser for its newspaper after a change in administration.
“If a publication has a strong mission and a strong educational mission, (students) understand their responsibilities,” Murphy said. That includes a code of ethics and a sense of responsibility.
His student journalists had to cover five deaths that occurred at West Fargo High School last year — a difficult topic fraught with sensitive issues.
“My students, their mission is to educate and inform and entertain … they feel that they’re providing the community a service and shedding light on issues that exist,” Murphy said. “If somebody wants to censor that, they are doing a disservice, they are turning a blind eye to those issues — and they’re not going away.
“So it’s important to teach students the responsible, ethical way to go about that conversation, and you can’t teach students how to do that without doing it,” he said.
Arens remains opposed to the part of the proposed law that would cover private schools. If those institutions do protect speech, they can use that as a marketing tool to attract students, Arens said.
LoMonte said it was fairly uncommon to have free speech protections in place for students at private colleges; California is the only other state that has such a law.
“That makes sense to us just as a matter of basic academic freedom,” LoMonte said. “That concept of academic freedom is well-recognized even at private colleges, and private colleges really often are very protective of the right of self-expression anyway.”
Free speech and press freedom are already in practice at “all the best institutions” anyway, he said.
“I will say that having an institution squarely behind a proposal like this and supporting it from the highest level is unusual,” LoMonte said of UJ’s support of the New Voices Act. “It’s one thing to not actively oppose the legislation, but it’s another thing to actually be supportive of it, and it really speaks well for the regard UJ has for academic freedom.”
Student journalism The students from the Civic and Citizen Journalism class agreed that the legal protections the law would set forth are particularly important to student journalism.
“If everyone else has the ability to write about what they want to write about at a professional standpoint, and we’re trying to learn at a professional standard, then it’s only fair and right that we get the ability to get the same training in the jobs that are in our field already,” said Domino, who is majoring in mass communication.
Students need to have the ability to write freely, reach the audience they intend to reach and get feedback from that audience when they make mistakes, she added.
“This isn’t just giving students a podium to spout whatever they want,” Murphy said. “It’s helping them become better leaders for tomorrow, for our future and communities. It’s not about right now; it’s about tomorrow and the years to come.”
The law has drawn support from the North Dakota Newspaper Association as well.
“We feel pretty strongly about issues that support freedom of the press, whether it’s for working journalists or college journalists or high school journalists, even though there should be no differentiation between them,” said Steve Andrist, NDNA’s executive director.
While the NDNA has no student members, Andrist said, it does have a stake in journalism education and funds internships every year.
“That’s really important to us as an industry to make sure that the next generation of leaders in this industry are going to be trained,” he said. “ … As a newspaper association and an industry, we feel compelled to be on the forefront of protecting the constitutional and statutory rights to free speech and open government.”
For more information or to watch for updates on the New Voices Act, visit “The Student Media of North Dakota” page on Facebook.