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Vermont students expect free-speech win

May 12, 2017
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High school student editors testified before the Vermont House of Representatives judiciary committee in April. Clockwise from upper-left, they were Jenna Majeski of Woodstock Union High School, Robbie Maher of Bellows Free Academy-St. Albans and Jake Bucci of Burlington High School.

Vermont high school students could find their free-speech rights restored by summertime.

Both the Vermont Senate and House of Representatives last week voted to create a free-speech law designed to protect students from censorship when working as part of school-sponsored student media programs in Vermont’s public colleges and K-12 schools.

The proposed legislation has been forwarded to Gov. Phil Scott.

University of Vermont student editor Kelsey Neubauer, who in January testified in support of the legislation, said the new law would help Vermont’s high school students better engage in civic discourse. Current law allows school administrators to censor student newspapers and other forms of media for the most trivial of reasons, including incorrect grammar in a news story. The law, established in 1988, rolled back protections originally given to students in the landmark 1969 Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines, which established that students’ free-speech rights should not end at the schoolhouse gate.

Kelsey Neubauer

Kelsey Neubauer, Vermont Cynic editor-in-chief

The new Vermont legislation is “a step toward instilling the importance of the press in the next generation of journalists,” said Neubauer, the 2016-2017 editor-in-chief of the UVM student newspaper The Vermont Cynic. “The protections given to student press through this law will help so many journalists do their job to serve their communities through truth and will empower them to do so on a larger scale later in life.

“It was so exciting to be a part of this process and such an honor to have seen such an important piece of legislation come to life. The most incredible part of the process was hearing the stories of Vermont high school journalists. I was in complete awe.”

High school editors from across the state traveled to the state capital of Montpelier to press lawmakers to approve the bill, which has been dubbed “New Voices” legislation because it’s intended to protect young Vermonters making their voices heard for the first time. The bill is just one of many New Voices efforts across the nation being championed by students, educators and professional journalists.

Among those Vermont students to testify were student editors Jenna Majeski of Woodstock Union High School, Robbie Maher of Bellows Free Academy-St. Albans; and Alexandre Silberman and Jake Bucci of Burlington High School.

Bucci

Jake Bucci, The Register co-editor, Burlington High School

Vermont lawmakers’ overwhelmingly positive response to the students’ testimony “shows that student journalists are finally being respected and trusted,” Bucci said.

Bucci and Silberman, co-editors of Burlington High’s award-winning newspaper, The Register, said that they looked forward to having legal protections to report responsibly about issues of concern to their fellow students. In the past, administrators have refused to let them publish stories that the administrators felt might upset some people.

“The New Voices law is important because it clearly defines what administration can and can’t do,” Bucci said, “and protects student journalists from censorship.”

Among the most visible advocates for the New Voices bill was veteran journalist Mike Donoghue, who serves as executive director of the Vermont Press Association and vice president of the New England First Amendment Coalition.

“This was really a team effort by students, teachers, advisers, professional journalists and just people interested in the First Amendment,” Donoghue said. “New Voices Vermont worked hard to try to ensure that high school and college students, along with their media advisers, will have First Amendment protections moving  forward.

“It was wonderful to see the students testify at the statehouse and to be actively engaged with legislators over First Amendment questions.  The legislators took the students just as serious as if they were dealing with experienced witnesses testifying.  These students are the future professional journalists that the public will depend on for finding the truth when it comes to reporting news in the future.”

Mike Donoghue

Mike Donoghue, Vermont Press Association executive director

Donoghue thanked the senators who sponsored the legislation—Jeanette White and Becca Balint of Windham County and Philip Baruth of Chittenden County—as well as all other legislators who took time to consider the bill.

New Voices also had the support of the Journalism Education Association, the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., the American Society of News Editors, the New England First Amendment Coalition, and members of the Vermont Press Association, which represents the interests of the 11 daily and dozens of non-daily printed newspapers circulating in the state.

Donoghue said that he expects the bill to become law.

“We do expect Gov. Phil Scott will sign this important legislation,” he said. “This is a critical time that students are engaged in current events and that they are able to report on issues of public importance and concern.  Student journalists need to know how to ask the tough questions of their own teachers, principals, school superintendents and even school board members when it comes to news.

“These students are the future professional journalists that the public will depend on for finding the truth when it comes to reporting news.”

For updates, follow the New Voices Vermont Facebook page.


Full disclosure: The author provided advice during the drafting of the New Voices legislation in Vermont, testified in favor of the bill three times and serves as a liaison to the national New Voices campaign. Bias toward the subject of this story? Yes, I have it.

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