After years of advocacy, the New Voices of New Jersey bill, A-4028 and S-2506, is finally gaining some momentum in the Legislature. Perhaps it’s in response to the national debate over the responsibilities and limitations of journalism, but it’s certainly because of the activism of people like Hunterdon Central Education Association member Tom McHale and retired Bergenfield Education Association member John Tagliareni.

Both are members of the Garden State Press Association and veteran educators and journalism advisors. McHale has been teaching for 19 years; Tagliareni retired after 39 years. 

According to Tagliareni, “this bill will re-establish the First Amendment rights of student journalists under the Tinker standard [which holds that speech is protected unless it is illegal or may cause a material disruption to the education process]. The bill also protects journalism teachers and advisers in public high schools and institutions of higher learning from retribution for supporting their students.”

Protecting student journalists’ First Amendment rights and protecting teachers and advisors from retribution for supporting their students is important for many reasons.

“When students are trusted, guided and supported to make these decisions, they are able to develop into the ethical citizens our country needs,” McHale says. “When they are not, they tend toward self-censorship and produce lifeless publications.”

But if the student publications are lifeless, students usually turn to social media to communicate with their peers. At a time when nearly every student carries a smartphone and is able to stream live video, a robust journalism training program teaches students responsibility and ethics.    

“Isn’t it better for kids to be trained in a journalism program with a qualified advisor?” Tagliareni asks. “Especially since those advisors educate students about the law and journalism.”

“This bill doesn’t change the limits and restrictions on students,” Tagliareni adds. “Students can’t do anything libelous or disruptive to the school day. They can’t invade someone’s privacy or do anything that violates the school policy.”

The bills are part of the New Voices network, which is supporting campaigns in 16 other states. Three states, North Dakota, Maryland, and Illinois, have recently enacted this.

Since the New Jersey bill was originally introduced two years ago, it has received the support of the editorial boards of the Times of Trenton and Gannet Newspapers, and the Student Press Law Center.

For Tagliareni, McHale and other members of the Garden State Press Association, the effort to pass this bill will be worth it if it helps to reinvigorate student journalism and protect the teachers and advisers who guide them.

“Seeing students get excited over a story they are reporting on that they know matters to their audience is one of the highlights of my career,” McHale said. “This bill ensures that all New Jersey public school students will be able to do that in a responsible and ethical way.”

S-2506 is sponsored by Sens. Diane Allen, R-Burlington, and Nia Gill, D-Essex. A-4028 is sponsored by Asw. Gail Phoebus, R-Sussex, and Asm. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington.

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