New Voices Texas: Effects of censorship on journalism

NEW VOICES: Activist Bethany Bissel (right) testified before the Public Education Committee in 2019. The committee is made up of 13 members of the Texas House of Representatives.

PHOTO COURTESY OF Angela Glass and the Akins Eagle's Eye Publication

NEW VOICES: Activist Bethany Bissel (right) testified before the Public Education Committee in 2019. The committee is made up of 13 members of the Texas House of Representatives.

Azul Lin, Assistant Editor

New Voices is a student-led, grassroots movement that is lobbying for the passage of the New Voices bill, granting student journalists the same press freedom rights as professional journalists. The 1988 Hazelwood Supreme Court Decision that New Voices seeks to reform currently allows administrators the power to ask to see student publications in advance of the publication, potentially enabling those administrators the ability to censor students.

“It can stop student journalists from putting out stories about important topics that affect students, because the administration doesn’t believe that students should be reading it or publishing it,” senior In-depth Editor Rae Gray said.

Two years ago, New Voices representatives petitioned Texas legislators to pass a law that would protect students more fully, nullifying the Hazelwood decision. Fourteen states have already passed legislation to protect student journalists, and the Texas branch of New Voices aims to become the next state. In 2019, the New Voices legislation did not make it to the floor of either branch of the Texas house and died.

“There are so many students in Texas who are not given their First Amendment rights,” Gray said. “We’re a country that is based on being the ‘home of the free and the brave,’ but we don’t allow students to have the same rights they would have out of the classroom because those rights are deemed ‘distracting.’ If you start restricting student’s rights, when does that restriction stop?”

Cade Spencer, club development officer for  New Voices Texas and the editor-in-chief of the Dispatch, believes it is the job of students to lobby for their First Amendment rights in the 2021 87th Texas Legislative Session.

“We educate people on the bill, we run a social media account, getting support,” Spencer said. “We talk to actual representatives to convince them to support us and vote for the bill as we get into the council session.”

New Voices students have already met with their representative in the House of Representatives, Mary Gonzalez, in order to get their bill passed in the lower chamber.

“She has signed her name on the New Voices bill to show that she’s supporting it,” Spencer said. “We talk to her about why we believe the bill is important, and to us it’s important because we believe student journalists do crucial work on campuses and fill a role that is equal to that of professional journalists, especially in this time of COVID-19.”

New Voices leaders are currently searching for a Senate representative so that their bill can be represented in both chambers and possibly be passed.

“Student journalists grow up to be professional journalists,” Spencer said. “When you write controversial stories, there’s impact, there’s backlash, there’s feedback. Future journalists need to know how important the truth is, and how no one should be allowed to silence the truth or reduce it.”

Newspaper adviser Michael Reeves encourages his students to join in the movement so that they can fight for the rights of other students in Texas.

“I would never teach someplace where censorship happens,” Reeves said. “I want to fight for the rights of all students.”

For Bowie students, this is important because it is to protect other students that may get censored because of the Hazelwood decision.

“It deeply saddens me, thinking that all of these students are putting so much hard work and effort into publishing something, only to have their principal say, ‘No, this makes me feel icky, you can’t publish this,’” Gray said. “The things that make us feel icky are the things that we need to talk about the most.

Newspaper students like Gray feel that it’s important to address sensitive issues while they’re still able to be fixed, which is exactly what New Voices is fighting for students to be able to do.

“A teenage alcoholic becomes an adult alcoholic,” Gray said. “A teenage drug addict becomes an adult addict. If these issues aren’t brought to light or dealt with now when it’s the most pressing years of our life, it becomes a much bigger problem later in life. Publishing stories that talk about these issues opens up a forum to talk about their struggles and allow them to get help.”

Gray shares her personal experience, listening to founder of New Voices at the Texas State Capitol.

“We got to sit in and we got to hear Neha Madhria, the founder of New Voices,” Gray said. “She made a really powerful speech, it was amazing, and I still kind of think about it two years later because her words, they were some of the most educated words that came out of an 18 year old’s mouth.”

Through his experience in Newspaper, Spencer explains his role has a student journalist in censorship as fundamentally important.

“I love newspapers because they are a media that can start discussions among peers,” Spencer said. “We can stir discussions at the high school level just with our paper. This brings people together.”