VT journalists capture free speech rights

From left to right: Mercury Editor-In-Chief, Vermont Governor Phil Scott, Mercury advisor Peter Riegelman and Mercury reporter Ambyr Wagner pose for a picture after the monumental signing of bill H. 513.

From left to right: Mercury Editor-In-Chief, Vermont Governor Phil Scott, Mercury advisor Peter Riegelman and Mercury reporter Ambyr Wagner pose for a picture after the monumental signing of bill H. 513.

Robbie Maher, Editor-In-Chief

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.


Email This Story






Thursday, May 25th marked a monumental day for Vermont high school journalists. Vermont Governor Phil Scott signed into law the bill H. 513 which reversed two historic Supreme Court decisions -Tinker vs Des Moines in 1969, and Hazelwood vs Kuhlmeier in 1988. These two cases permitted school administrators to censor, and in some cases, completely shut down student newspapers and other forms of media for debatable reasons, including the way in which the story is worded, and the grammar of a story.

H. 513 is a product of New Voices USA, a group that is “a student-powered grassroots movement to give young people the legally protected right to gather information and share ideas about issues of public concern,” is designed to protect students from censorship and administrative backlash while engaging in school-sponsored student media programs -like the Mercury- in all of Vermont high school and colleges.

From left to right: Jake Bucci, Robbie Maher, Governor Phil Scott and Alexandre Silberman gather around as Scott signs in H. 513 into Vermont law.

The topic of removing the Hazelwood decision from schools has also been raised in countless other states throughout the country and has been a topic of discussion for years, with twelve states having already expanded the current rules governing freedom of the press to their students through legislative action. In Arizona, which passed a similar bill to Vermont, it was a nearly two-decade process. Meanwhile, it only took Vermont and its team about a year to push the bill into law.

In this team of journalists assembled to move along the bill were the Mercury’s editor-in-chief Robbie Maher and advisor Peter Riegelman.

The bill initially started as S. 18, then moved through the Education Committee to the Judiciary Committee, and was eventually lumped together with an education bill labeled H. 513, which Governor Scott ultimately signed off on the 25th.

However, as the bill advanced toward passage by the Vermont Senate and House of Representatives, Maher and two other high school newspaper editors from the state, -Jenna Majeski of Woodstock and Jake Bucci of Burlington- testified to the House Judiciary Committee that student journalists, if given the opportunity, have the ability to tackle important and sometimes controversial topics in a professional manner.

Maher told Vermont legislators that the current BFA model with journalism is a potential model for what is to come for all high school journalism programs in the state of Vermont.

“We believe that The Mercury is the type of model (H. 513) is trying to ensure in each school. That is a well-trained student who is not discouraged from covering meaningful events in the everyday community. That must be a reality for every student in the state of Vermont and beyond,” Maher testified.

This had not been the case in some neighboring schools either, as Bucci, told legislators. Bucci co-editor of the BHS Register shared the real life experiences of student reporters at BHS having stories being edited or in some cases completely deleted by their principal, superintendent, as well as other members of the administrative team.

Bucci specifically mentioned through his testimony that at a Seahorses home football game this past season against Rice, a BHS fan prominently displayed a racially charged sign. Even though the majority of those in attendance at the game had already seen the content of the sign, the Register was forbidden to report on the matter at all.

After hearing Bucci’s story, the positive experience of the Mercury’s staff seemed to be compelling evidence for the Judiciary Committee, as they went on to approve the bill 11-0. “The Mercury is not just fluff either… Journalism is reporting on topics where tough questions need to be asked, which has never been something the Mercury has shied away from… We have covered incredibly challenging topics: Black Lives Matter protests outside BFA doors, significant school budget slashes with significant administrative pay raises at that same period and major school district unification changes.”

Besides the student input during the process, spearheads for the New Voices bill were: former Burlington Free Press reporter and accomplished Vermont journalist Mike Donoghue, who serves as executive director of the Vermont Press Association and vice president of the New England First Amendment Coalition; University of Vermont advisor to the student paper “The Cynic” Chris Evans; and the Student Press Law Center’s Frank LoMonte. Donoghue, Evans and LoMonte -among other things- coordinated the student testimony, which, by some accounts, was the most powerful of all the testimonies offered.

Donoghue, speaking to Chris Evans, said “This was really a team effort by students, teachers, advisers, professional journalists and just people interested in the First Amendment… It was wonderful to see the students testify at the statehouse and to be actively engaged with legislators over First Amendment questions.  The legislators took the students just as seriously as if they were dealing with experienced witnesses testifying.  These students are the future professional journalists that the public will depend on for finding the truth when it comes to reporting news in the future.”

Along with Donoghue and company, the New Voices efforts also had the support of the Journalism Education Association, the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., the American Society of News Editors, the New England First Amendment Coalition, and members of the Vermont Press Association, which represents the interests of the 11 daily and dozens of non-daily printed newspapers circulating in the state -including the St. Albans Messenger.

Without the considerable knowledge and expertise of Donoghue, Evans and LoMonte regarding the intricate push and pull of shepherding legislation through the halls of the Montpelier State House, it is likely that this process could have been dragged out for years. Instead, the efforts of all concerned allowed the Green Mountain state to pass the bill in one legislative cycle -according to sources, the shortest amount of time ever.

Meanwhile, the efforts of the Vermont coalition have been recognized by Education Week, a national publication. The Mercury staff will be featured in the article.

The Mercury staff is very appreciative of the continued support from the St. Albans and surrounding communities. We are fortunate to have had the ongoing support from different principals, administrators, and school boards that started in 1930 at the Mercury’s creation, and it has never wavered…

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Comment

If you want a picture to show with your comment, go get a gravatar.




Navigate Right
Navigate Left
  • VT journalists capture free speech rights

    Showcase

    Annual Flu Vaccination Clinic

  • VT journalists capture free speech rights

    Showcase

    New school resource officer named

  • VT journalists capture free speech rights

    Sports

    VT high school golf making a move

  • Sports

    Comets stifled in defeat

  • VT journalists capture free speech rights

    Sports

    VT High School Golf Making a Move

  • VT journalists capture free speech rights

    Showcase

    Freedom of Speech?

  • VT journalists capture free speech rights

    Showcase

    Trump Wants To Move White House Press Room: A Student’s Response

  • VT journalists capture free speech rights

    Showcase

    Should College Athletes Be Paid?

  • VT journalists capture free speech rights

    Features

    A written experience

  • VT journalists capture free speech rights

    Showcase

    Annual Flu Vaccination Clinic

VT journalists capture free speech rights