“New Voices” equals new hope for student journalists

On Jan. 29, 2019, Senator Jose Rodriguez (District 29) introduced State Bill No. 514 to the Texas legislature. The bill also known as New Voices intends to protect freedom of student press and to combat restrictive measures set forth by the decision of Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier (1988).

Students across the country have been censored since the Hazelwood decision of the Supreme Court. In 1987, Hazelwood East High School reporter Katherine Kuhlmeier was censored for her articles about teen pregnancy and divorce. The school principal said it was inappropriate. After going through eight different district courts and one appeals court the case finally went to the Supreme Court where Kuhlmeier lost and as a result, this decision created a precedence for restrictive measures toward high school journalists.

The decision of the Supreme Court in this case largely reserved freedoms for student expression founded after the Tinker vs. Des Moines case (1969) which also reached the Supreme Court. Justice Abe Fortas famously said at the ruling “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

The New Voices bill is a big step toward returning to Justice Fortas’ assertion that school environments should be representative of journalism in working society and remove overly restrictive censorship on student journalists.

This bill helps students prepare for future careers. According to the website Statista, in 2016 there were approximately 183,200 journalists working for newspapers but this number is decreasing dramatically and has been since 2010. If high school newspaper or yearbook students cannot fully research and investigate topics which matter in their student culture, then how can they prepare for the real world where censorship shouldn’t happen? The First Amendment explicitly protects the rights of journalists. Known as The Fourth Estate, journalism acts as a watchdog of government for the American people. Student journalists should have the opportunity to train and learn about realistic topics which will, hopefully, inspire them to enter the profession.

Teenagers are often seen from the perspective that they don’t care about anything besides video games and social media. This bill is unique in that it is led by young people and carried out for the benefit of their peers. Prosper High School students Neha Madhira and Haley Stack gained national attention after they were censored by their school administration which resulted in prior review for their newspaper. Prior review is when publications must get approval prior to publishing and do not act as a public forum. Featured in the New York Times and as the youngest women to be invited to speak at TEDWomen, Madhira and Stack have championed student journalism all over the United States which ideally will have a lasting effect on all of journalism.

There is expected criticism and concern over this bill. First, there is the question of how to ensure students do not irresponsibly report or publish inappropriate articles and content. When it comes to ensuring high school publications operates justly and effectively, the weight of teaching ethical and effective journalism falls on the shoulders of the adviser. Organizations such as the Texas Association of Journalism Educators, Journalism Education Association, National Scholastic Press Association and more offer incredible professional development and conferences for teachers and students to refine their craft and learn how to avoid such ethical dilemmas. Additionally, the Student Press Law Center offers free advice for high school programs when they encounter questions.

Another concern is perceived political bias in this bill. This is a nonpartisan movement. In a time where journalism struggles to maintain integrity with the American people, this bill could serve as a starting point for creating positive relationships with the media. High schools can set the standard for supporting free and factual press. No fake news here. 

Currently 29 states have active campaigns, legislation or have passed New Voices legislation. Arkansas is one of 14 states with legal protections for student journalism. In 2018, The Har-Ber Herald published an article and editorial criticizing their school district’s inconsistent student transfer policy. When they were told to remove the content, the staff and adviser challenged the decision which was eventually found to be in violation of state law and were permitted to republish. Controversial topics are not erroneous topics and should not be censored for fear of public image. This example is indicative of the power of journalism and the necessity to let a publication serve as a voice for its audience. 

Bridgeland High School is fortunate to operate as a public forum and have a supportive campus and district administration who believe in student media. However, this is not the case for every school or every district. We encourage everyone to contact their congressional representatives to voice support of this bill, the First Amendment and a free press for all.