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The freedom to speak:
the John Wall Voices Act


by Faith Harron, sophomore
Century High School
Century Star newsmagazine

sprclogoThe Constitution of the United States guarantees all are created free and equal and endowed with the same rights.

When it comes to journalism, though, many high school and college students are not equal to their adult counterparts.

Some a few in North Dakota are trying to change that. With the backing of representatives Jessica Haak and Corey Mock, a bill was written by college students at the University of Jamestown and introduced it in the House this month.

The current bill, the John Wall New Voices Act, is something different. It would grant student journalists in high school (like me) as well as college limited First Amendment rights to publish school newspapers.

“The John Wall New Voices Act is a wonderful tool to ensure student journalists are provided the same freedoms that professional journalists are awarded thanks to our First Amendment,” said Corey Mock, assistant minority leader in the North Dakota House of Representatives. “Since I had been working on the bill with Rep. Haak since April of 2013, sponsoring the bill was the easiest decision I have made all session long.”

Censorship is akin to blunting a pen, or even writing in invisible ink. What purpose does the story serve if it never sees the light of day? This is sometimes the case when prior review is allowed.

This allows the censorship of “questionable content.”

But who is the judge of “questionable content?” Is it the authorities in the school? The journalism advisers? The students, who have been taught to judge between right and wrong?

Jeremy Murphy was a West Fargo teacher who was fired because there “was a difference in philosophy when it came to student journalism and how students decided content for the publications,” he said.

He was later rehired by the school district and continues to teach journalism with no prior review, and adds “there is probably a fear factor when it comes to a bill on student expression…some people might think it allows students free reign on what they can do.”

However, there are guidelines written into the bill for appropriate student speech. But there are other concerns about the bill.

[pullquote]Censorship and the chilling effect are hard to prove. We can show how…widespread this issue is nationally, and we hope that our legislators will know that we North Dakotans are not immune. – Steven Listopad, University of Jamestown[/pullquote] 

“[A] threat to a bill like this is the ‘ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ principle,” said Steven Listopad, the teacher who helped his Jamestown students draft the bill. “Censorship and the chilling effect are hard to prove. We can show how…widespread this issue is nationally, and we hope that our legislators will know that we North Dakotans are not immune. We North Dakotans, just like any other human being, will choose more control over less in any given situation even though when it comes to your right to speak less control is exactly what we need.”

What started as a class project in COMM 412: Civics and Citizen Journalism at the University of Jamestown has become a bill…and possibly a law.

“The John Wall New Voices Act will be heard by the House Education committee this month and hopefully given a ‘do pass’ recommendation before it comes to a final vote on the House floor,” Mock said.

I’m just one high school journalist, and I can’t say I speak for all undergraduate nonfiction writers out there. But I would never consider writing something libelous or obscene. Knowing my peers, I don’t believe they would, either.

It’s a bill. It won’t solve the world’s hunger problems, and it won’t make everyone equal. It probably doesn’t matter to everyone in the world.

But it matters to me, and my peers, and maybe it can help someone share their story. At the very least, it’s a start.


One Comment

  1. Great post, Faith! You are the reason we must fight censorship in high school and collegiate media. Keep telling the truth. Bravo!

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