This article is being co-published with American University School of Communication’s Investigative Reporting Workshop.
It’s not often that a college term paper turns into state law. But that’s exactly what happened in 2013 when six students at the University of Jamestown drafted a student press freedom bill for their civic journalism class and proposed it to the North Dakota state legislature.
Two years later, The John Wall New Voices Act was passed unanimously, giving students at both high schools and colleges in North Dakota more robust free speech protections than their peers in most other states. It was the first such bill to be passed since 2007.
“It was miraculous that it won unanimous bipartisan acceptance, in a very red state,” said Frank LoMonte, who runs the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), a D.C.-based legal nonprofit focused on advocating First Amendment freedoms for students. SPLC, founded in 1974, is the only non-profit law firm in the country with the sole goal of educating and advocating for student journalists.
Related Training: The Poynter College Media Project
For LoMonte, who is leaving in July for a new position at the University of Florida after nearly a decade as the center’s executive director, building on the success of the Jamestown students became a central mission of his final years at the organization.
In the aftermath of the North Dakota law’s passage, LoMonte said that SPLC’s phones “started ringing off the hook” with calls from students and teachers looking to replicate the legislation in other states. Since then, LoMonte and his staff have taken on the role of supporting grassroots advocates across the country who identify as part of the New Voices movement to revitalize First Amendment rights in schools.
“We’ll train you. We’ll coach you. We’ll put you in touch with the right people,” LoMonte said in a recent interview.
Their efforts seem to be paying off. In the two years since the original New Voices bill passed, the number of states with student press laws has risen to a dozen, with the prospect of four or five more passing in the upcoming legislative cycle, LoMonte said.
“We’re over the hump now,” he said. “You can’t say that something that exists in 12 states is a fringe issue anymore. It’s just not.”
SPLC and other proponents of New Voices are using state-by-state advocacy to fight back against a landmark 1988 Supreme Court decision that limited free speech protections for student journalists relative to their professional counterparts.
In the case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, three student journalists at a high school in Missouri sued their school district after an entire two-page spread with articles about divorce and teen pregnancy was removed from publication by the principal.
Ruling in favor of the principal, the court gave high school and college administrators broad authority to review and restrict the content of student-run publications on the basis that such outlets were not public forums but rather school-sponsored educational activities. In legitimizing forms of school-sponsored censorship, the ruling provides the legal basis for the more than 2,000 cases the SPLC takes on annually.
“Every case that we have is an uphill case,” LoMonte said.
As the only full-time lawyer working on site at the center, he coordinates a network of 215 volunteer attorneys around the country who give pro bono legal advice to students and faculty advisers seeking SPLC’s help.
The high standard set by Hazelwood has made the courts reticent to rule in favor of students, even in cases where there is clear censorship of articles critical of school administration or those that touch on provocative social issues like abortion, he said. Under the ruling, schools are allowed to withhold publication of an article if there is a valid pedagogical reason for doing so, including minor errors in the writing.
“If the story falls in any way short of professional New York Times-quality standards, the school’s going to win the argument,” he said.
A SMALL OFFICE WITH A BIG MISSION
In his nine-year tenure at SPLC, LoMonte has become something of a guru for student press protections, having spoken on the issue in 41 states. Meredith Taylor, executive director of the national College Media Association, noted that the association’s members have found LoMonte “to be a tremendous resource.”
She added that LoMonte is often invoked in their online discussions.
“A common chorus we hear is ‘Have you talked to Frank about this yet?’” she said in an email interview.
As executive director of the center, LoMonte has had a formidable range of duties. His work has ranged from consulting students and coordinating legal support to traveling around the country to give educational workshops – a far cry from the corporate law he practiced before joining the SPLC in 2008.
In that time, he has become a mainstay at college media advisers’ conventions, where Taylor says “his sessions are always some of the most valuable for students.” His creative and energetic approach to the work has helped raise SPLC’s profile and expand its capacities.
For a small office – there are just four full-time employees – SPLC accomplishes an impressive breadth of work. Its website is packed with educational resources for student journalists, such as an automatic Freedom of Information Act generator, and features a blog that compiles news relevant to student media across the country.
A satirically designed “Cure Hazelwood” page gives a lighthearted treatment to the center’s long-standing foe. Tagline: “The infectious disease no one talks about. Because they’re not allowed to.”
Recent issues that the SPLC has covered include the secrecy behind the hiring process for presidents of public colleges, the lack of transparency of some police forces on private campuses and the new challenges presented by student use of social media.
Of all of these endeavors, LoMonte is most proud of Active Voice, a fellowship meant to empower young female journalists. He started the program after realizing that school censorship disproportionately affects girls—a conclusion born out by research from the University of Kansas. A sticker with the program’s cartoonish logo even adorns his cell phone.
LoMonte has achieved national recognition for his work and is regularly cited as a legal expert in publications from Inside Higher Ed to The Atlantic. But it’s the impact that SPLC’s limited staff and resources are able to have on individual cases that have motivated him to continue the often-uphill effort.
Reflecting on the victories the SPLC has accomplished under his leadership, LoMonte tells the story of a transgender high school student in Louisiana who wanted to be featured in the yearbook for his LGBT advocacy. The principal vetoed the idea, concerned over the controversy it would cause in the community.
That’s when the SPLC got involved, sending a letter to the principal describing the ways that the decision was “not just illegal, but educationally and morally bankrupt,” LoMonte said. The principal backed down, and the article ran in the yearbook.
It is such cases such as these, where “you’re able to get justice for someone,” that keep LoMonte going.
“This is the best job I’ll ever have,” he said. “There’s nothing else that has this kind of intangible reward to it, where people literally tell you that you are their hero.”
NEW VOICES AND NEW DIRECTIONS
In contrast to the SPLC’s usual task of defending censored students or fired advisers, the New Voices movement has provided a rare opportunity to play offense—and push for more systemic change. In the short time since the North Dakota bill passed, legislatures in Illinois, Maryland, Vermont, and Nevada have followed suit.
Though as a non-profit the SPLC is not allowed to directly campaign for legislation, the center assists these efforts by providing connections and resources to local organizers. In an embattled political moment for journalists of all stripes, the movement’s steady progress has given LoMonte a tangible reward for his years of work across the country.
While the effort to roll back Hazelwood’s effect on student journalism is far from over, LoMonte is confident that the tide is soon to turn. He cited impending legislation in New York and Texas as critical benchmarks for extending protections on a national scale.
“I think that we’ve broken the back of Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier,” he said. “It’s just a matter of whether it is going to take five years or 10 years. That court case is going into the wastebasket.”
While LoMonte won’t be around SPLC long enough to take a victory lap, he intends to stay close to the work. Come fall, he’ll take a position at the head of the Brechner Center for the Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, working on some of the same issues from a more academic perspective.
In a press release, chair of the SPLC Board of Directors Jane Eisner lamented LoMonte’s loss while expressing confidence in the ongoing success of SPLC’s work.
“It’s hard to imagine the SPLC without Frank – except that he’s leaving the organization as strong and as relevant as it’s ever been,” she said.
And though he’s ready to let someone else take the helm of the center, LoMonte insists he’ll stay close by.
“I’ve told everybody that if they need an expert witness to jump in an airplane and testify at a state legislature, they can count on me to do that,” he said, adding, “I really think that I’ll be a force multiplier and that this is going to wind up being the best possible thing for the organization.”