Feb. 11, 2022
Dec. 21, 2021 was a monumental day for student journalists. On this date, New Jersey became the 15th state to adopt Bill S108, legislation that protects scholastic press freedoms by providing more concrete guidance to schools than that put forth in the 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision.
This landmark Supreme Court case gave schools the authority to censor a student publication when it is reasonably attributable to the school and the censorship has a reasonable pedagogical purpose. The case gave administrators the power to censor content they deemed inappropriate, discourteous and likely to cause controversy. Meanwhile, it negatively impacted students by limiting their free expression and prevented them from publishing newsworthy content.
Bill S108 grew out of New Voices, a student-powered, nonpartisan, grassroots movement that focuses on enhancing student press rights through state-based activism.
Starting in 2015, Tom McHale, a teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School, and John Tagliareni, a retired teacher/adviser from Bergenfield High School, led the efforts to push the New Voices legislation through the state legislature.
New Jersey’s New Voices legislation protects student journalists by restricting the power school districts obtained through the Hazelwood holding. Schools can no longer engage in prior restraint of lawful student speech and must show justification for any limitation of unprotected student media expression. The new law mandates that each district have a policy that aligns with the law by the start of the next school year.
ILLUSTRATION BY AIDAN CABRERA
Officials can still restrict school-sponsored content if it contains libel, slander, constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy, violates federal or state law, incites students to create a clear and present danger, materially and substantially disrupts school operations or violates school district policies.
Advisers and other school employees also receive protections as a result of the legislation. They cannot be penalized for refusing to censor, interfere with or overrule student decisions relating to school-sponsored media.
This law marks a milestone in scholastic journalism because it grants students the ability to fully express themselves through their school publications and broadens student press rights to more closely resemble those of professional publications. With these freedoms, students will feel empowered to explore their journalistic capabilities and communicate what is important to them. They will also be less likely to self-censor in fear of facing rejection or punishment from administrators.
With the recent passage of this bill, students have a lot to celebrate on Feb. 24. This day marks Student Press Freedom Day, an occasion for student journalists to spread awareness about their challenges, recognize their contributions to scholastic media and reflect on their First Amendment freedoms.
Due to the support of the New Voices movement, the Garden State Scholastic Press Association, the Student Press Law Center and other allies, student journalists in New Jersey now have the power to do their best work and tell the stories their communities need to hear.