Vt. Bill Protects Student Journalists

Associated Press
Published: 4/4/2017 11:50:38 PM
Modified: 4/4/2017 11:50:40 PM

Montpelier — Self-censorship is a problem at Burlington High School’s newspaper out of fear of administrative backlash, the paper’s 18-year-old editor told lawmakers on Tuesday, as he testified in support of a bill that would provide greater protections for public school journalists from censorship and retaliation.

Alexandre Silberman told the House Education Committee that numerous times the paper has been told by the administration to pull an image, omit a fact or avoid running an article. The principal of the Burlington High School did not return a phone call seeking comment.

The bill is part of an effort around the country to pass so-called new voices legislation, partly in response to a 1988 Supreme Court case that upheld the right of administrators at a Missouri school district to censor the student newspaper. Ten states have laws in place.

“A new voices law would help create clear standards on what can and cannot be published in student newspapers while protecting the rights of students and their advisers,” Silberman said.

What can be censored by public K-12 schools under the bill is content that is libelous or slanderous; constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy; may be defined as obscene, gratuitously profane, threatening or intimidating; violates federal or state law; or creates the imminent danger of disrupting the ability of the school to perform its educational mission. Student journalists may not be disciplined if they abide by these rules and media advisers also are protected from dismissal, suspensions, transfers or reassignments.

In public post-secondary schools, school officials would not be allowed to censor the content of school-sponsored media unless they can show that a particular publication will cause immediate and irreparable harm.

In both K-12 and post-secondary public schools, content may not censored because of it contains subjects that are political, controversial or critical of the school or administration.

The bill passed the Senate in February.

The Vermont Principals’ Association is supportive of the proposal in concept but believes it should be improved, such as specifying that a media adviser will teach, instead of may teach, professional standards of English and journalism to student journalists, said executive director Ken Page.

“Isn’t this the teachable moment? And wouldn’t we want to indicate specifically what standards they should teach?” he said.

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