New Voices Law strengthens student journalists’ First Amendment rights

Protects educators from retaliation when supporting students

By Thomas McHale 

In 2013, Kylie Sposato was 17-year-old senior at Pemberton High School working on a column for her journalism class. She decided to write her piece about a problem with girls smoking in the bathroom. Sposato interviewed students and school security, wrote the column and submitted it for publication.  

To her surprise, the column was removed by the principal because she said it was inappropriate for publication in The Stinger, the school’s newspaper. This would set off a controversy that would play out in the local press and result in the removal of Sposato’s adviser, Bill Gurden. 

Sposato is now a kindergarten teacher at Springville Elementary in Mount Laurel.  

“Until that moment, I didn’t realize how political schools could be,” Sposato said. “It made me use my voice more. You should be able to write what you want.” 

Incidents like this have not been uncommon in New Jersey, but a new law provides protections that make censorship like this illegal.  

What is New Voices? 

The New Voices of New Jersey Act, P.L. 2021, Chapter 309, protects the First Amendment rights of student journalists and protects school employees from retribution for simply supporting the rights of student journalists.  

“Having this in place now is going to open up new doors to students writing about what they care about and what they think is important,” Sposato said. 

The law provides better guidance for administrators on what they can restrict. For the last 34 years, schools have relied on the standard of “legitimate pedagogical concern” for guidance on when they can censor speech in student media. That standard stems from the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier.  

Hillary Davis is the advocacy and organizing director for the Student Press Law Center, which has supported New Voices legislative efforts throughout the country. The SPLC also provides free legal help for anyone involved with student journalism.  

“Legitimate pedagogical concern was never defined,” Davis said. “Different people have interpreted it in different ways. And in a large number of cases, that meant censorship for any reason that caused discomfort to the school or the school administration. New Voices fixes that by clearly defining when students may cross a line where the administration needs to step in. But for the most part, it really just makes clear that students are able to publish what they feel they need to be able to publish.” 

New Voices of New Jersey went into effect immediately when it was signed by Gov. Phil Murphy last December. School districts, however, will have until the beginning of the 2022-23 school year to change their scholastic publications policies to adhere to the law. The Student Press Law Center is providing districts with model policies that are posted to their website (splc.org), and they will be mailing out comprehensive brochures to advisers, principals and administrators.  

“We’re going to go ahead and make this easy on everybody,” Davis said. “Nobody should be in a position of inadvertently violating the law. And so we’re going to help with that effort.” 

Spreading the word 

Now that the law has been passed, the focus has shifted to education and awareness. Sara Fajardo is one of a group of students in New Jersey who have been trained through the Student Press Law Center’s New Voices Leadership Institute. Fajardo worked to get the bills passed last year while also acting as co-editor-in-chief of The Highlander—the student newspaper at Governor Livingston High School in Berkeley Heights. 

For her, the experience has been life-changing.  

“Speaking to legislators made me see how much my voice can matter and how much of a difference young people can make,” Fajardo said.  

Now a freshman at Rutgers University, Fajardo continues to work as an intern with the SPLC to create Instagram content, work with the New Voices Leadership Institute and anchor Zoom meetings with students from other states.   

“I would like there not to be fear in journalism classrooms,” Fajardo said. “I would like to see students be bold and go after what they feel needs to be covered.” 

For that to happen, students, teachers, and administrators must be aware of what the law requires and the intent behind it. Staci Toporek was Fajardo’s adviser on The Highlander, and she currently has students who continue this work. One of those students, Sasha Rtischchev, was also trained at the New Voices Summer Institute.  

“She was instrumental in spreading awareness at the school and keeping everyone updated on the Senate and Assembly vote,” Toporek said.  

Her students also made flyers that they posted around the school to raise awareness of the new law during Scholastic Journalism Week in February. 

Toporek believes that student journalists should meet with school administrators to review the district’s scholastic media policy to ensure it adheres to the law. She hopes that doing this will open up a line of communication among all stakeholders involved in student media.   

Holliday Woodard, a student journalist, celebrates the New Voices Law. The QR-code on her poster links to a website for Student Press Freedom Day.

NJEA’s support proves vital 

While there is still much to be done, getting to this point was a journey in itself. I have worked for the past eight years with John Tagliareni. He is a retired journalism teacher and adviser from Bergenfield High School, a current board member of the Garden State Scholastic Press Association, and a member of the Journalism Education Association’s Scholastic Press Rights Committee. Tagliareni worked on legislation to protect student journalists before, getting as far as a Senate floor vote in 1989 before it was defeated. 

The journey with this bill started in a political science classroom at Hunterdon Central Regional High School when a local Assemblywoman, Donna Simon, agreed to sponsor legislation to protect the First Amendment rights of student journalists. The resulting Assembly bill was introduced in a lame-duck session in 2015 with one sponsor, but eventually grew to bills that had 34 sponsors. The bills that became the New Voices of New Jersey Act had bipartisan sponsorship with Sen. Nia H. Gill (D-Essex), Sen. Shirley K. Turner (D-Mercer), Asm. Ralph R. Caputo (D-Essex), and Asm. Harold J. Wirths (R-Sussex) as primary sponsors.  

Tagliareni credits NJEA’s endorsement for helping to grow that support and get the legislation passed. Along with the Student Press Law Center and the Garden State Scholastic Press Association, NJEA was the most important supporter we had, he said.  

Beth Schroeder Buonsante, then an associate director of Government Relations who now coordinates the NJEA Member Benefits program, worked with us early on. She set up a meeting with the Working Conditions Committee at NJEA headquarters, which voted unanimously to support our legislation and eventually led to NJEA’s support for our legislation.  

As the bills got introduced, Francine Pfeffer, associate director of Government Relations, gave us advice and contacted key legislators.  

“Francine was there at every Assembly hearing or took part in it and guided us—‘Do this.’ ‘Don’t do that.’ ‘Here’s the time to do this’—so the advice that we got was excellent,” Tagliareni said.  “And then the other part of it was having their endorsement which was publicized on their website. That was invaluable, really.”  

With NJEA’s published endorsements, other legislators came on board as co-sponsors.  

“It certainly was helpful to be able to call legislators and tell them that our bills were NJEA-endorsed,” Tagliareni said. 

Why this matters for the entire school community 

Robust student media plays a vital role in a school’s culture. Hillary Davis points out that scholastic media has played a key role in keeping schools unified even during hybrid and remote learning in the last two years.  

“The student media was the only thing that was linking a lot of these people together, making sure that stories that were important were being brought to light,” Davis said.  

She says that student media also allows students to think about big, complex ideas in a way that is written for them. It provides an opportunity to pull conversation off social media and into a public forum where all voices can be heard in an ethical and responsible way. 

“And beyond that, we have to think that if we are censoring students, if we’re telling them to doubt themselves first, if we’re telling them to question what is important versus what is popular and convenient for them to tell, how does that impact all of us as they go out into the world?” Davis said. “So while people may like to write off student media and think that it doesn’t apply to them, it certainly does. And the censorship of student journalists certainly does weaken everybody who’s involved.” 

John Tagliareni reflected on how New Jersey’s New Voices Law is one of the few that protects school employees from retaliation for solely supporting the First Amendment rights of their students.  

“This is a victory for all teachers, he concluded. 

Thomas McHale is a journalism and English teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School. He is a board member of the Garden State Scholastic Press Association. He can be followed on Twitter at @tmchale42 and Medium at @tmchale. He can be reached at
[email protected] 

What’s in the New Voices Law? 

The New Voices Law affirms that public school student journalists have the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press. The law covers all New Jersey public school students whether in school districts, charter schools, renaissance schools, or public institutions of higher education.  

The New Voices Law, P.L. 2021, Chapter 309, was sponsored by Sen. Nia Gill (D-Essex), Sen. Shirley Tuner (D-Mercer), Asm. Ralph Caputo (D-Essex), and Harold Wirths (R-Sussex). Gov. Phil Murphy signed the legislation on Dec. 21, 2021. 

The law also protects student media advisers from retaliation for protecting students’ rights under the law, including, but not limited to, dismissal, suspension, discipline, reassignment or transfer. The adviser, however, is not prohibited from teaching professional standards of English and journalism to student journalists. 

Under the New Voices Law, a student journalist has the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media, regardless of whether the media is supported financially by the school district or by use of school district facilities or produced in conjunction with a class in which the student is enrolled. A student journalist is responsible for determining the news, opinion, feature and advertising content of school-sponsored media.  

School officials may restrict student journalists from distributing content that: 

  • Is libelous or slanderous. 
  • Constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy. 
  • Is profane or obscene. 
  • Violates federal or state law. 
  • So incites students as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of an unlawful act, the violation of school district policies, or the material and substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school. 

A school district cannot authorize any prior restraint of any school-sponsored media except for the types of expression described above. When a school official determines that the restraint of student expression is necessary, the school official must identify the provisions of the law under which the limitation of student expression is appropriate. 

By the 2022-23 school year, school districts must adopt a written policy concerning student freedom of expression in accordance with the law.  

If your student journalists have experienced or are at risk of censorship, they may contact the Student Press Law Center’s legal hotline at splc.org/legalrequest. For more information, visit the Student Press Law Center at splc.org

If, as an adviser, you believe that you have suffered retaliation as a result of protecting the rights of student journalists, contact your association representative or local association president.