On Monday, Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval signed Senate Bill 420 into law, becoming the latest state to put measures into place to prevent school administrators from censoring student journalists and punishing their advisers for green-lighting potentially contentious stories. SB 420 is the latest example of a “New Voices” bill, legislation intended to protect the rights of student journalists. The bills are based on a model provided by the Student Press Law Center, a member of NCAC's Free Expression Network and coalition, as part of their New Voices campaign.

We last blogged about New Voices legislation in July when bills had been proposed in New Jersey and Illinois. With Nevada enacting their incarnation of the bill into law almost a year later, 12 states have now passed New Voices legislation, including Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Oregon, and Vermont. Another 17 states have ongoing campaigns.

Taking effect on Oct. 1, the Nevada bill enhances students’ rights, including protecting speech that results in unintentional substantial disruptions. But it still permits school officials to restrain speech that incites unlawfulness or violates the institution’s policies, such as bullying.

Student journalists who contribute to their high school and college outlets do not enjoy the same level of protections as their professional counterparts. The landmark 1988 Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District v Kulhmeier gave administrators considerable leeway to control student publication content, as long as their editorial direction was “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.” The Supreme Court has stayed silent when it comes to upholding student journalists’ rights ever since. In the judiciary’s stead, state legislators have stepped up in these last few years to safeguard budding reporters through New Voices bills.

In December, NCAC co-sponsored a report alongside the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the College Media Association (CMA), and the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) that outlined how Hazelwood has led to an abuse of student media rights. We detailed how it has become “disturbingly routine for student journalists and their advisers to experience overt hostility that threatens their ability to inform the campus” and “subordinate campus journalism to public relations.”

The wave of New Voices bills seeks to combat these abuses and has thus been dubbed “anti-Hazelwood” legislation. The bills buoy student journalists and also provide an additional layer of protection for media advisers, freeing them from hesitancy to fully support publishing articles on hairy, but nonetheless important, topics for young people like drug use, sex, and suicide. This gives journalism educators the necessary ability to guide students tackling these difficult issues without fear of disciplinary action.

The right to freely criticize those in charge is imperative in a functioning democracy, and schools provide the training grounds that prepare the next generation to fulfill their civic duties. With their ears to the ground, students are the experts on their own school community and perhaps the best-suited watchdogs to flag malfeasance and provide commentary and they should be able to do so with minimal interference from administrators. And with heavy student involvement in the passing of these New Voices bills, these young adults are getting a first-hand education in being responsible members of both the press and society.