On June 7, 2017

New Vermont law provides First Amendment protections to students and teachers

Gov. Phil Scott recently signed into law legislation that provides greater First Amendment protections for student journalists and their teachers and advisers in Vermont.

“The Vermont Press Association is pleased the state Legislature moved quickly this year to provide proper First Amendment safeguards for student-journalists and their advisers,” said VPA President Adam Silverman, an editor and writer at the Burlington Free Press. “School superintendents, principals and other administrators should refrain from censoring student publications. That is why there is a First Amendment.”

The Vermont law protects student journalists against retaliation for writing articles that address controversial political issues. The bill also blocks retaliation against teachers or advisers for articles written by students. Silverman said the law places speech in journalistic publications on par with students’ rights to speak on their T-shirts, leaflets, flyers, armbands and in all other parts of the school day.

The new statute, along with an unrelated shield law bill, which also has been signed by Gov. Scott, were the two top priorities for the Press Association going into the legislative session, Silverman said.

Student-journalists representing Burlington High, Bellows Free Academy-St. Albans, Woodstock Union and the University of Vermont were among witnesses who testified in favor of the new law. A noted First Amendment law school professor, a longtime award-winning journalist and a university newspaper advisor also affirmed the need for the legislation in Vermont.

The Vermont students testified about some pushback they received at their schools when trying to cover stories that had been reported by local professional media outlets. The stories included reports on an impasse being declared for teacher negotiations, a study of handicapped accessibility in school buildings, sexting cases by students and local rallies outside schools for Black Lives Matter.

The Senate Education Committee and the full chamber passed the bill unanimously by Valentine’s Day. The bill had gotten mired in the House for two months before the education and judiciary committees considered it. The House eventually gave the bill the green light.

Gov. Scott met with some of the witnesses for a ceremonial bill signing Thursday, May 25, in South Burlington. While the bill had to be signed earlier in the week to meet a legal legislative deadline, the governor said it was important to meet with the student-journalists and others involved in supporting the bill. He told the group that journalists play an important role in society and also said it was important for young Vermonters to be active in politics. The 58-year-old governor said he knows people his age who have never set foot inside the State House.

“If we want to change the direction of this country or this state, you have to get involved, right? You have to get there, you have to step up,” he told the group. “Having the press be able to tell the stories without being victimized is important in keeping politicians honest. I thank you for your efforts. I look forward to your futures.”

The legislation is part of a national effort by the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., to reverse a troubling 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case known as the “Hazelwood decision,” which allowed denial of First Amendment rights for students.

Vermont becomes the 11th state with a New Voices-type statute, according to attorney Frank LoMonte, executive director of the press law center. Vermont joins Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Dakota and Oregon.

LoMonte said the Vermont legislation is now considered the benchmark for future legislation in other states, where efforts are ongoing.

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