New Bill Stops Promotes Free Press in New Jersey Schools

New Jersey is considering a bill that will not only allow student journalists the right to exercise editorial control over content in school publications, but halt censorship from officials who might deem certain materials to be too controversial.

The bill, which was re-introduced on June 30 is part of the broader New Voices of New Jersey campaign that seeks to protect student’s rights to “gather information and share ideas about issues of public concern.” Co-sponsored by Assemblywoman Gail Phoebus, R-Sussex, and Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, the bill is designed to promote the exercise of free speech while limiting school districts’ abilities to censor perceived sensitive content. As noted in the bill’s Statement:

This bill guarantees certain freedom of expression rights for students in public schools and public institutions of higher education. The bill provides that a student at a public school or a public institution of higher education who gathers, compiles, writes, edits, photographs, records, or prepares information for dissemination in school-sponsored media has the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press, and is responsible for determining the news, opinion, feature, and advertising content of the school-sponsored media.

In recent years, there has been an alarming rise of journalistic censorship at the school level. Earlier this year, a high school newspaper in Missoula County, Montana, was recalled for its article “Free the Nipple,” which explored the timely topic of public perceptions and negative assumptions of the exposed female nipple. From outright censorship to fostering a fear of negative backlash for publishing controversial material, journalism in the academic setting has become a precarious place where both students and advisors have in some cases been too afraid to speak out.

In response to this trend, similar versions of the New Jersey bill have already been passed in nine states, the most recent Maryland, where the bill will go into effect October 1. These laws along with the work of New Voices USA inspire Assemblyman Singleton to fight for the bill in New Jersey. “[It’s a] critically important issue to support journalists,” Singleton told the Student Press Law Center. “Supporting journalism in general is important to keep those of us in office accountable.”

Others, like high school newspaper advisor and Garden State Scholastic Press Association executive board member, Tom McHale, also see the educational value of the bill beyond simply preventing unnecessary and undue censorship and upholding students’ constitutional rights. “Schools should be teaching kids to become responsible citizens,” notes McHale. “For many schools, that’s part of their mission statement. So to me, (supporting the legislation is) important for anyone who cares about education.”

John Tagliareni, a newspaper advisor and co-organizer of the bill, also reminds us of the importance of the bill and the necessity to stand up for everyone’s constitutional right to free speech. “You don’t stop the kids from learning,” he says. “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.

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!