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Vermont student journalists seek to bolster press freedoms

January 24, 2017
Jake Bucci, co-editor of the Burlington High School newspaper, The Register, testifies Jan. 17, 2017, before the Vermont Senate education committee about the New Voices bill.

Jake Bucci, co-editor of the Burlington High School newspaper, The Register, testifies Jan. 17, 2017, before the Vermont Senate education committee about the New Voices bill.

Student journalists took a major step this month toward securing greater First Amendment protection for themselves and their peers in Vermont.

Representatives from the University of Vermont and nearby Burlington High School testified before the Vermont Senate’s education committee in support of Senate bill S.18, which would protect responsible journalism from prior review and censorship in high schools and colleges.

Vermont student journalists Alexandre Silberman and Jake Bucci of the Burlington High School newspaper, The Register, and Kelsey Neubauer of the University of Vermont newspaper, The Vermont Cynic, traveled to Montpelier to testify before the Vermont Senate education committee.

Vermont student journalists Alexandre Silberman and Jake Bucci of the Burlington High School newspaper, The Register, and Kelsey Neubauer of the University of Vermont newspaper, The Vermont Cynic, traveled to Montpelier to testify before the Vermont Senate education committee.

The bill represents a state-level effort to address provisions of the 1988 Supreme Court decision Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which allows principals to prevent high school students from publishing anything that they consider, in their personal judgment, to be improper for a high school publication. For example, if students produce a newspaper with what the principal considers to be too many grammatical errors, the school can censor it. Later court rulings expanded those restrictions to college newspapers, although only in certain Midwestern states.

The senate bill—one of about 20 state-level bills and laws branded together as the “New Voices” campaign—would allow both high school and college students to print their own words as long as the language did not cause a substantial disruption to the school or break the law. Offenses like libel and invasion of privacy would still be illegal.

The bill would return students to a standard set by the landmark Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines, in which the court ruled that students do not lose their First Amendment rights merely because they step into a school.

The Vermont effort has gained support from students, journalists, educators and free-speech advocates from across the state, region and country. Supporters come from the Vermont Press Association, the Vermont Journalism Education Association, the Student Press Law Center, the New England First Amendment Coalition, the leadership of the University of Vermont’s Student Government Association and elsewhere.

This bill “allows educators to teach students how to be aggressive, responsible journalists while protecting those students and their advisers from unreasonable discipline,” said Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition. “While focused on student expression, this legislation will ultimately strengthen professional newsrooms throughout the state.

“It will help create an educational environment where the practice of journalism can be better taught and the next generation of Vermont’s watchdogs more easily groomed.”

Vermont Cynic Editor-in-Chief Kelsey Neubauer and co-editors Jake Bucci and Alexandre Silberman of the Burlington High School newspaper, The Register, testified at Tuesday’s hearing. They said that they will continue to advocate for the bill.

Committee members are in the process of examining similar laws in other states to see how the Vermont bill compares. They said that they want to make sure that they balance student press freedoms with reasonable protections for all high school students.

UPDATE: Ken Page, executive director of the Vermont Principals’ Association, testified before the education committee today. He released a statement showing substantial support for the bill before speaking. Also testifying were Peter Teachout, professor at Vermont Law School, and Jeff Fannon, executive director of the Vermont National Education Association.

See more at VTDigger.org.

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