Bill protecting students’ press rights re-introduced to NJ Assembly

State legislators have re-introduced a bill that would prohibit school districts and public universities from authorizing prior restraint of school-sponsored media.

Co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Gail Phoebus, R-Sussex, and Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, the legislation aims to protect students from administrative censorship. The bill was originally introduced by an outgoing assemblywoman near the end of the 2014-2015 session.

The legislation, which was re-introduced June 30, is a part of the New Voices of New Jerseycampaign. The New Voices campaign is a nation-wide movement to legally protect students’ rights to gather and report on news without being censored at their high schools and public universities.

The bill doesn’t protect student expression that would be considered libelous or slanderous or that would constitute an “unwarranted invasion of privacy.” Additionally, any expression that violates federal or state law or “incites students to create a clear and present danger” will not be protected under the legislation.

The bill would require school districts to adopt a written policy concerning student freedom of expression in compliance with the provisions of the bill.

The legislation has been assigned to the education committee where Singleton serves as vice chair. Singleton said he was inspired to advocate for student journalists after he watched legislation in favor of students’ rights become law in Maryland. In April, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed a bill that will protect students’ free-speech rights beginning Oct. 1.

“When I learned more about what they were doing, it made sense,” Singleton said. “I wanted to add my name to that.”

Singleton referenced a 2014 incident in Burlington County where newspaper adviser Bill Gurden was removed from his position at Pemberton Township High School in Pemberton, New Jersey. Principal Ida Smith also threatened to terminate journalism classes at the school after administrators previously stalled publication of multiple articles.

“(It’s a) critically important issue to support journalists,” Singleton said. “Supporting journalism in general is important to keep those of us in office accountable.”

Singleton said he hopes to see the bill on the governor’s desk before the session ends in 2018.

John Tagliareni, a co-organizer of the bill, said New Voices legislation passing in other states has helped garner support for the New Jersey effort. New Voice legislation has already passed in nine states.

Tagliareni, who spent 37 years as a newspaper adviser, said adviser turnover has become a problem because school administrators are increasingly becoming more sensitive and concerned about their school’s image.

In addition to defending students’ rights, the bill states that teachers and employees can’t be “dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against” for protecting students’ rights to expression.

“I like that wording,” he said. “No one involved can be threatened.”

Tagliareni said he isn’t aware of any backlash from administrators who might oppose the bill. He said he expects the New Jersey Education Association to endorse the legislation.

The passage of the bill is important because journalism students need to learn how to do their jobs responsibly with the guidance of an adviser, Tagliareni said.

“My point is, you don’t stop the kids from learning,” Tagliareni said. “The goal is to educate students. (The) best journalism that is out there isn’t getting practiced like it should be. We have to just keep fighting.”

Louis Crescitelli, Phoebus’ chief of staff, said the assemblywoman decided to support the bill after meeting with members of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Garden State Scholastic Press Association.

“We hope it helps the journalism profession,” Crescitelli said. “(Phoebus) takes her duty seriously to protect Constitutional rights.”

Tom McHale, a high school English and journalism teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School, said there weren’t many censorship issues while he worked as the school’s newspaper adviser, but he said he resigned his position in 2013 after the school instituted a prior review policy.

Similarly, the newspaper adviser at Northern Highlands Regional High School resigned in 2014 after a three-month battle to publish an article that was critical of administrators and the superintendent.

McHale, who is also a Garden State Scholastic Press Association executive board member, said he is aware of journalism students within the state self-censoring out of fear of administration backlash.

“Schools should be teaching kids to become responsible citizens,” McHale said. “For many schools, that’s part of their mission statement.”

McHale said failing to educate students about exercising their First Amendment rights in an ethical manner while they are learning can have grave consequences beyond high school. He said he believes students who might be censored in high school could be more likely to self-censor and not exercise their First Amendment rights in their entirety.

“So to me, (supporting the legislation is) important for anyone who cares about education,” McHale said.

McHale said the next step is to gather support for the bill from students, teachers and the public. He said Sen. Diane Allen, R-Burlington, is expected to introduce the bill to the Senate in the fall. The Assembly is out of session for the summer and is scheduled to resume in September.


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