North Dakota Leads Western States in Student Free Speech Laws

In April 2013, an anti-abortion poster was removed from the hallway of Griggs County Central High School in Cooperstown, North Dakota, after a parent complained about it. The poster was displayed as part of a class assignment to address current issues.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a non-profit advocate of religious liberty, sent a letter defending the student’s right to hang the poster. The school’s principal decided to allow the poster after deliberating with officials.

As of April 2015, the school’s decision to remove the poster would be illegal thanks to the John Wall New Voices Act, which prohibits censorship of student speech unless it’s unlawful or infringes on the rights of others. In the past, North Dakota schools followed precedent established by the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier ruling, which says schools don’t have to promote certain types of speech.

The new law, which was unanimously passed by the legislature in April 2015, expands student free speech in public high schools and colleges by following the 1969 case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. Under the Tinker ruling, schools cannot censor student speech unless it poses a substantial disruption to the learning environment.

The John Wall New Voices Act, which went into effect in August 2015, has already impacted student journalism in North Dakota.

“The law is a very welcome addition,” said Alexander Bertsch, editor-in-chief of the student newspaper at the University of North Dakota.

North Dakota is the eighth state to legislatively expand free speech laws in schools. Next door in Montana, student speech has no such protection.

“I’m sure a law like North Dakota’s would help other student journalists at different Montana schools,” said Aidan Reed, co-editor and head writer at Helena High School’s “Helena Nugget.” He said he hasn’t experienced any kind of censorship in Helena specifically.

Reed said he is encouraged to write risky pieces such as reflections on student suicides and a criticism of Christmas. But Helena High may be an exception to the rule.

Joe Cohn, the legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), said that schools often try to review student publications before they are published. Because students know an administrator has to approve their material, they are less likely to pursue controversial stories, he said.

“In jurisdictions where prior restraint by school administration is permitted, the risk of self-censorship is not only real, it’s routine,” Cohn said.

The likelihood of self-censorship is sufficient motivation for groups like FIRE and the Student Press Law Center to pressure other states to expand student speech. Both groups pushed the North Dakota Legislature to pass the law.

“We’re optimistic in the next few years for a breakthrough in both federal and state legislatures,” Cohn said.

He also said FIRE will continue to defend student speech in state legislatures in the hope that all 50 states will soon be more like North Dakota, a leader in free speech protection for student journalists.