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Vermont students expect free-speech win

May 12, 2017

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.


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.


A UVM journalism program? It just might happen.

April 4, 2017

Probably I’ll need to change the tagline to this blog, which came into existence a decade ago with the subtitle:

the UVM J-blog: when you realize that the University of Vermont has no journalism program

As local alt-weekly Seven Days reports in its most recent issue, the University of Vermont is indeed moving toward creating a journalism major. A committee began meeting last summer and, though we didn’t make any public announcement about the effort, members of UVM’s media organizations have been providing advice from the beginning. So have alumni, who we brought together into a Listserv to provide advice for an undertaking that we hope will improve the academic experience for UVM students who say they want a journalism major—and there appear to be a lot of them. As adviser to The Vermont Cynic, I regularly hear from students who want to enter the journalism field and want UVM to offer a program—forward-thinking and multimedia—to meet their needs.

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Seven Days reports in its most recent issue about UVM’s plans to design a journalism major.

For those of you who know the Cynic well, there’s been one overriding sentiment: Make it good, but make sure the Cynic stays independent. I’ve heard this from both students and alumni in commentary spiked with a tinge of anxiety. For many Cynics, the best part of the UVM journalism experience has been the ability to chart their own course, to design a student-run, working newsroom without university oversight.

There’s no reason for that to change. Here’s how I explained it to Seven Days:
The university currently offers academic credits to students who work on the Cynic and on-campus TV and radio stations. “We’ll continue to give students space to develop their skills in real-world situations — a working newsroom, TV station or radio station — where students set the agenda,” Evans said. “The only difference would be that many students in the journalism major might have more formal training before they walk into student media offices.”
For UVM student media, then, any changes should be supplementary rather than revolutionary. For Cynic members and alumni, in particular, there’s a certain If it ain’t broke quality to the UVM journalism experience, but giving budding journalists more educational opportunities would certainly have its upsides.
The program might be of even greater value to The Cynic’s sibling, UVMtv, which produces news shows but doesn’t have the Cynic’s established news-gathering infrastructure. A new journalism program would, by necessity (and all that is journalistically holy in the modern media age) focus heavily on multimedia. While video efforts most certainly would include the mini-doc style of videos done so well by the New York Times video team and others, traditional TV news formats should benefit as well.
We’re early enough in the process of designing this major for us to take new perspectives into account: to get things right. I’d encourage anyone who cares about this kind of thing to speak up. Leave a comment on this story or, even better, contact your favorite UVM power-broker. Tell them what you want to see. Help UVM get it right.

UVM, public discourse and Habermas

February 24, 2017

One of the things I love about advising student media at the University of Vermont—and about being part of the wider media world—is the opportunity to speak to some of the most fascinating experts in the field.

I recently called upon some of these media experts to help me with a podcast experiment in which I sought to examine some of the most important—and troubling—changes to public discourse in the modern electronic era.

The piece has an academic slant—as projects at universities sometimes do—in that it concerns concepts about public discourse explored by German philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who in the 1960s wrote about the emergence of a “public sphere,” where commoners like you and me could come together to debate the issues of the day and, in the process, advance the cause of democracy.

I’m posting the podcast to the UVM media blog because one major part of the podcast involves an extended interview with Natalie DiBlasio, a 2012 editor-in-chief of The Vermont Cynic and, today, head of social media at WIRED. We also hear from UVM sociology professor Tom Streeter and Anne Galloway, founder and publisher of the Vermont investigative news source, so the Vermont media connection is strong.

I invite you to listen to the whole thing or—if you’re not actually on a road trip in your car—encourage you to dive in to listen to the sources who you’re most eager to hear. The minute-by-minute breakdown below can help you do that.

Thanks, in advance, for listening.

Your chapter guide:

  • 8:24 — Tom Streeter, UVM sociology professor
  • 12:52 — Natalie DiBlasio, head of social media at WIRED and former editor-in-chief of The Vermont Cynic
  • 35:50 — David Niose, an activist who has served as president of two Washington-based national organizations, the American Humanist Association and the Secular Coalition for America
  • 48:14 —Pam Platt, lifelong journalist and, until recently, editorial director at The Louisville Courier-Journal
  • 1:10:19 — Anne Galloway, founder and publisher of investigative journalism source
  • 1:17:52 — A quick callback from Tom Streeter

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

Voice of America tackles threats to student press freedom

January 5, 2017


Voice of America this week published a new piece about the plight of college newspapers and other student-run news organizations, a topic that’s been in the press quite a bit in the past year.

The VOA story stems from a report that I helped write as chairman of the First Amendment Advocacy Program of College Media Association: a role separate from my work as the UVM student media adviser. Other contributors to the report include writers and editors at the American Association of University Professors, the Student Press Law Center and the National Coalition Against Censorship.

It’s hard to say whether the number of cases of censorship by college officials is increasing, but, in the modern media environment, our awareness of threats to students’ free expression is.

College officials sometimes demand to see stories before they go to print or cut funding entirely if student journalists write articles that offend their sensibilities. This happens with stories ranging from the obviously vital—investigations into the actions of misbehaving administrators, say—to the seemingly trivial, such as the best places to hook up on campus. Student government organizations sometimes punish the press, too.

In many cases, perpetrators of this censorship claim other motives for their actions and say that censorship isn’t taking place at all. They might say that they want to shutter a newsroom because of concerns about a newspaper’s finances or that the removal of the newspaper’s adviser is a result of larger university cutbacks. Sometimes they say that an adviser has been removed from her position for other work-related reasons that they can’t discuss because of privacy rules around personnel issues. Sometimes, definitely, censorship has nothing to do with it, but our research shows that, too often, it does.

We’re blessed at the University of Vermont, where college officials value the student press in a way that not every higher ed administrator does. If The Vermont Cynic publishes something that offends a reader, then UVM officials point that reader to the student editors. This is so automatic that, even as the newspaper’s adviser, I usually don’t hear about these complaints until well after students have responded to the offended party, whether it be a local business owner or government official.

Not every college media organization is so fortunate. Our hope is that the report might shine a light on these problems and provide guidance for how to move forward.

Vermont Cynic wins national Diversity Story of the Year award

October 24, 2016

By at least one measure of college news writing—one highly respected, pretty definitive measure—the staff of The Vermont Cynic this year wrote the nation’s best story focused on diversity and social justice.

Associated Collegiate Press—which also awards the Pacemaker, aka the “Pulitzer Prize of college journalism”—on Saturday awarded the Cynic’s examination of the University of Vermont’s racist past with the 2016 “Diversity Story of the Year Award.”

Who didn’t get the award? Well … every other college and university in the nation.

Among the nine finalists receiving runner-up status were some of higher-ed’s top journalism programs.

Runners-up included:

  • University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
  • University of Oregon
  • Ball State
  • Drake
  • The Graduate School of Journalism at City University of New York
  • Pepperdine
  • Northwestern

All came in second place or lower to the University of Vermont, which has no journalism program: just the hard-working staff of The Vermont Cynic, a 3,000-circulation newspaper with a staff of fewer than 100.


Layout editors Eileen O’Connor and Kira Bellis react to the win.

“I’m just extremely proud of all the people who worked on the story,” said Hannah Kearns, the Cynic’s editor-in-chief. “It definitely was a huge team and collaborative effort.

“That was my favorite part, being able to see see a team of talented journalists come together to create something amazing.”

The story focused on Kakewalk, a 73-year UVM tradition in which students performed in blackface. The practice continued into the 1970s, according to the Cynic’s reporting.

“Not a lot of people knew that the KakeWalk even existed at UVM,” Kearns said. “The ability to shine a light on that was really important. That’s what our job is.”

News writer Kelsey Neubauer, who co-wrote the story with fellow reporter Bryan O’Keefe under the supervision of enterprise editor Sarah Olsen, said talking to sources involved in and affected by KakeWalk was an emotional experience.

img_5901Neubauer said that social justice issues are close to her heart, and, before writing this story, she had long debated whether she could do more good as a social justice activist or as a journalist who could bring these issues to light for a wider audience.

In the end, she said, she chose the latter: “This story is what made me want to be a journalist.”

Neubauer and O’Keefe will continue to have an outsized impact on The Cynic. Just last week, Neubauer was elected as the next editor-in-chief, and O’Keefe was chosen as her managing editor.

Both Kearns and Neubauer said that this story helped them understand the value of deep reporting—getting to know their sources through extended conversations and probing questions—and staying sensitive to the fact that the tradition inflicted immense emotional pain on so many people.

Producing this story, Kearns said, “definitely wasn’t a sprint. We treated it as a marathon.”

This is the second year in a row that the Cynic earned national recognition for its reporting. Last year, ACP gave a second-place News Story of the Year award to the Cynic  for its investigation of working conditions at Sodexo, the food service provider for University of Vermont students, faculty and staff.


Story co-writer Kelsey Neubauer returns to the rest of her team after accepting the award for The Cynic.

Neubauer and other Cynic staff members received the award while in Washington, D.C. this weekend for ACP’s National College Media Convention.

Among the other moments of the weekend: seeing talks by heavy-hitters such as Donna Brazile, interim chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee; Bob Woodward, the legendary Washington Post editor; and—by video chat from his exile in Russia—Edward Snowden, the government whistleblower who revealed that the U.S. government was conducting electronic surveillance on Americans on a massive scale.

Remembering a Vermont Cynic layout legend

July 26, 2016
Screen Shot 2016-07-26 at 2.24.09 PM

Susan Mitchum Ball, 1943-2016

At the end of the era in which journalists still pasted their stories onto a physical page to be sent to the printer, few non-students were as essential to The Vermont Cynic as Sue Ball.

Ball was a “Cynic legend” who stayed awake into the wee hours of the morning waiting for the University of Vermont’s student journalists to finish their stories and turn in their photos, said Pat Brown, UVM’s director of Student Life.

“Sue would sit behind this wall of a machine that would amaze current students,” Brown said. “It was massive, with a simple keyboard and a driver the size of an old VW bug. She typed and coded stories, then passed along neat columns of student inspirations to inform the campus.”

Brown said he would encourage Ball to head home if students missed their deadlines, but she refused to do it, saying that she couldn’t let the students down.

“Sue was a trooper, hanging out in Billings with her dog Damien, waiting for the ever-tardy, yet intensely driven story. She’d also help students format their resumes and create a poster or two for student organizations.”

Ball died July 8 at the age of 72, according to the Burlington Free Press. She owned the business Bold Face Type & Design and started the Burlington magazine LOOKOUT, which continued until the late 1980s.

Read her obituary here.