N.D. legislators should champion New Voices Act
North Dakota legislators — and voters — should champion the New Voices Act being written to safeguard the free speech and freedom of the press of students in North Dakota.
University of Jamestown students researched and proposed the legislation, which is similar to that already existing in other states.
The New Voices Act, which is in the process of being written and could potentially go before lawmakers in 2015, would protect First Amendment rights for high school students as well as students at both private and public post-secondary institutions.
Free speech isn’t always easy, and very often it can result in people hearing things that they did not want to hear — harsh criticism, unpopular ideas and dissenting opinions.
As Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas said during the Tinker v. Des Moines School District case of 1969, which upheld students’ right to freedom of speech, “It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
The proposed law has three parts — rights for students at public colleges and universities, rights for high school students and rights for students at private institutions.
Rights for public colleges and universities are the easiest to support. These young people are adults who are entitled to vote, after all. Meanwhile, their schools are supported through government funds, meaning that any effort by a public school to squelch free speech would amount to a government effort to do so — intolerable, given the First Amendment.
Some have questioned the wisdom of allowing high-school students to express themselves freely, when they may not have the life experience to use that power responsibly. But high school is a time of learning responsibility, and mistakes are better made then than later, so that young people can learn from them — and be held accountable as journalists.
Some have questioned the wisdom of forcing a privately-owned endeavor such as a private school to obey a law set forth and intended to apply to government. However, private schools have far more power over their students than most businesses do — students live on school-owned property, work at school-paid jobs and depend in part on the school for their future prospects, in the form of grades and degrees.
While most colleges and universities understand the value of free speech and freedom of the press, there is no denying that reprisals for exercising constitutional rights could be devastating, if they were to occur. Attending a private institution should not mean that the institution has the right to take away a well-established right enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
Student rights are far more vulnerable than those of adults, and the rights of the student press are precarious indeed when schools can so easily remove an adviser, kill an article or cut funding.
The University of Jamestown and the North Dakota Newspaper Association have joined the chorus supporting the New Voices Act.
The Jamestown Sun stands with our fellow members of the press — our future reporters, photographers, sales staff, editors and owners.
We support their rights — for they are our rights, too.
(Editorials are the opinion of Jamestown Sun management and the newspaper’s editorial board)