U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp speaks on the Senate floor in support of student free speech

Ryan Tarinelli, SPLC Staff Writer

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Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota took to the U.S. Senate floor Thursday to voice support for students’ free speech rights and to applaud her home state’s groundbreaking passage of New Voices legislation.

Last April, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed into law the John Wall New Voices Act that protects students’ right to free speech and of the press, regardless of whether the school pays for the publication or it is produced as part of a class. The state legislature had unanimously passed the law, which went into effect in August.

The law protects both high school and college student journalists and bolsters free speech rights for students in response to the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court caseHazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. In the case, the Court decided that unless a newspaper is identified as a public forum, school administrators can censor student media if they have “legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

Heitkamp, who is the mother of a former high school columnist, spoke about the “dire” effects of the Hazelwood decision in schools, which she said has been widely condemned by professional journalism organizations.

“Students report regularly that they’ve been prevented from discussing matters of public importance in the pages of student media, or perhaps worse, they’ve restrained themselves from even attempting to address an issue of political or social concern for fear of adverse consequences,” she said. “That is not an environment that values and empowers student voices and it’s not a climate that is conducive to effective and learning civic participation. We can and must do better.”

The passage of the legislation has inspired the national New Voices movement. About 20 states have a campaign to pass similar legislation, with eight bills introduced so far.

“I look forward to taking on the difficult task of talking about what we can do nationally to advance this,” Heitkamp said. “But I mainly came here to applaud the great state of North Dakota for recognizing the importance of students’ First Amendment rights, and encourage all the members in this chamber to examine what happens at home with students’ First Amendment rights, to provide leadership to promote those rights in their state and to potentially look at how we can reverse the Hazelwood decision so that we can grow a more confident, a more educated and a more diverse population for our future.”

Watch Heitkamp’s full remarks below.

 

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