The Road to Student Press Rights: An Interview
By: Tiffany Osoria
The current landscape for student publishing rights in New Jersey is pretty grim. Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, a supreme court case that ruled in favor of administrators having control in approving school publications, has set the norm for cases of students’ rights to a free press. Journalism teacher Tom McHale from Hunterdon Central Regional High School (HCRHS) has taken a stand and is challenging the system to grant students press rights alongside his colleagues. Assemblywoman Donna Simon was the initial legislator that McHale worked with to introduce a bill that would give student press rights in New Jersey. The New Voices Bill would assure that students keep their freedom of expression, while protecting faculty from retaliation. The bill(S108/A169), which was introduced into the NJ Legislature, is one that has been passed in several states across the country. North Dakota passed the bill in 2015 which encouraged 13 other states to follow suit. Now, in 2020, 12 states including NJ have set out to pass the bill.
As a communications major, who is concerned about my own rights to a free press, I was very interested in learning more about Mr. McHale’s advocacy journey. Often schools want to stray away from publishing stories that paint the school in a bad light. This happens nationwide on a regular basis. Recently a school in Illinois tried their best to censor students and their opinion on the school publication. Students were trying to shed light to multiple eyewitness accounts of a student causing constant classroom disruptions, including punching a teacher in the head, resulting in a concussion and closing down hallways. The students came back with an even stronger desire to have their voices heard and issues addressed. The students contacted the Student Press Law Center’s legal hotline for advice, and were able to navigate the censorship as well as their rights under the New Voices Bill. Acts of censorship like these stifle student’s expression and their want to see improvement around their own schools. In Mr. McHale’s case, he ended up resigning from his job as a journalism teacher to prove how dedicated he was to the cause. Following a new principle wanting to oversee and impose greater control over what was covered in the school newspaper.
The following story is a compilation of information I have gathered from him during my interview with him.
From left to right are SPLC Staff Attorney Sommer Ingram Dean, Katy Temple, a Columbia University student and former editor-in-chief of The Torch, MCCC , Alison Cedarbaum, high school student advocate, Senator Nia Gill (primary sponsor of the bill), John Tagliareni, retired journalism teacher, Tom McHale, and Kaitlyn Cleary at that time a high school senior, now a college student. Everyone in the photo had just finished testifying at the Senate Education Committee Hearing on June 17, 2019. That bill (S108) passed unanimously.
McHale is energized about how the bill is currently doing, “Senator Nia Gill brought it through the Senate education committee, then sponsored it on the Senate floor and that’s where we’ve had our success, where the bill passed unanimously,” this past March.
When a bill is in the legislative process, it must get passed in both the senate and assembly by first getting voted through its designated house committee and then voted and passed in its house. It’s crucial to have an assembly member and senator who really believe in the bill so it can get through the hurdles of hearings.
When we spoke about the impact that the bill would have on students, McHale stated “without control to choose what to write about, students learn writing skills sure, but not how to report responsibly, and ask questions to find out the true facts. They need to learn ethics responsibly under the guidance of a journalism teacher in school.”
The bill has had great support from legislators from both parties. Legislators like Senators: Gill, Turner, Doherty, Singleton, Greenstein, Allen and Beck and Assembly members: Caputo, Wirths, Space, Huttle, Peterson, DiMaio, DiMaso, Reynolds-Jackson, Peters,Stanfield, Benson, Verrelli, Giblin, Carter, McKeon, Murphy, Dunn, and Phoebus. Aside from legislators McHale says the biggest support has been from the Garden State Scholastic Press Association (GSSPA) and Student Press Law Center, “they have given us great resources to work with, they set up a network that included social media, legal support, and representation.” He also made it super clear that this effort was not his alone, and that the movement could not have gotten as far as it has without retired journalism teacher and GSSPA Board member John Tagliareni and Social Studies teacher at HCRHS, Dr. Darrell DeTample.
Unfortunately the biggest opposers of the bill are the NJ Supervisors and Principals Association, claiming that the schools pay for the resources, and the current laws are working fine. Aside from those testimonies, McHale has had no personal backlash for being involved with this bill. He said that navigating the legislative system has been the hardest part of his advocacy journey, but once he built rapport with the staff working there, it has become a lot easier for him.
It’s not every day that a teacher steps up to represent their students outside of the classroom and on their own time. As the NJ legislature starts to find its new normal, I am cheering on this bill and hoping to see it soon posted for a vote in the Assembly Education Committee. If you would like to get involved in this advocacy effort, contact your local assembly person and let them know why the bill matters to you.
About the Author:
Tiffany Osoria is a PR and Social Media Intern at the Lesniak Institute and a Senior at Kean University studying communications.
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