NEFAC, Media Groups Helped Advocate for Additional Safeguards for Students Reporting on Controversial Topics
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Vermont Gov. Phil Scott recently signed into law legislation that provides greater First Amendment protections for student journalists and their teachers and advisers.
The New England First Amendment Coalition is one of several organizations that spent more than a year advocating for such protections at high schools and colleges in Vermont.
“This is a win for student journalists throughout Vermont,” said Michael Donoghue, NEFAC’s vice president and former staff writer for the Burlington Free Press. “These students can now report on the issues that matter most to them without fear of retaliation.”
The new law — signed by Gov. Scott on May 25 — protects student-journalists against retaliation for writing articles that address controversial political issues. The law also prevents retaliation against the teachers and advisors of those students.
Student-journalists representing Burlington High School, Bellows Free Academy-St. Albans, Woodstock Union and the University of Vermont were among those who testified in favor of the new law. Donoghue testified on behalf of NEFAC and the Vermont Press Association.
In their testimony, the Vermont students described the pushback they received at their schools when they tried 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, student sexting concerns and local rallies outside schools for Black Lives Matter.
Gov. Scott invited many of the student-journalists who had testified to join him for a ceremonial bill signing last week.
“Having the press be able to tell the stories without being victimized is important in keeping politicians honest,” he told the students. “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 counter the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier that gave broad authority to schools to censor student publications.
Vermont is now the eleventh state with a law to protect student-journalists — and the first in New England to cover both high school and college students and advisers, said attorney Frank LoMonte, executive director of the center. The Vermont law will be considered the benchmark for future legislation in other states, LoMonte said.
NEFAC was formed in 2006 to advance and protect the Five Freedoms of the First Amendment, including the principle of the public’s right to know. We’re a broad-based organization of people who believe in the power of an informed democratic society. Our members include lawyers, journalists, historians, academics and private citizens.
Our coalition is funded through contributions made by those who value the First Amendment and who strive to keep government accountable. Please make a donation here.
Major Supporters of NEFAC for this year include the Barr Foundation, The Providence Journal Charitable Legacy Fund, The Robertson Foundation, Lois Howe McClure, The Boston Globe and Boston University. Celebration Supporters include The Hartford Courant and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.