In Brief

Journalism teachers urge lawmakers to pass bill protecting freedom of speech for students

By: - December 2, 2021 6:55 am

Gov. Phil Murphy conditionally vetoed the bill, saying he supports its goals but wanted the measure to explicitly exclude profanity or obscenity from protected speech. (Getty Images)

After Gov. Phil Murphy issued a conditional veto on a bill aimed at protecting student journalists, supporters of the law are making another push for it.

The measure (S108) unanimously passed both houses of the Legislature before landing on the governor’s desk in June. In his veto, Murphy said while he applauds efforts to protect student journalists’ freedoms, the bill needs to give school administrators more leeway to “maintain the safe and orderly operations of the school district.”

The legislation is being amended to include those changes, said Tom McHale, an English teacher at Hunterdon Central Regional High School who ran the school’s journalism department for 10 years and has been pushing for the law since 2015.

“The protections the bill offers student journalists and their advisors is more important than quibbling about these little changes,” he said.

McHale’s advocacy began when a new principal asked to see the school’s student paper before it was printed. Policies like that can scare students and advisors into self-censoring, he noted.

The state Senate is expected to vote on the measure Thursday.

Under the bill, school districts would be required to maintain a policy protecting student journalists’ right to exercise freedom of the press, policies that would be able to include limits, like on profanity. School districts wouldn’t be able to authorize prior restraint — halting the publication of an article — unless the language falls under libel or slander, is an invasion of privacy, includes obscene or profane language, violates federal or state law, or incites danger or disruption.

The bill would also protect school employees from retaliation for protecting a student exercising their freedom of expression.

McHale said he’s confident it will pass with Murphy’s suggested revisions and be signed into law before the lame duck session ends in early January. New Jersey would be the 15th state with protections for student journalists.

“We’re hopeful and we’re confident. … We definitely feel it still maintains student expression and helps to avoid self censuring,” he said.


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Sophie Nieto-Munoz
Sophie Nieto-Munoz

Sophie Nieto-Muñoz, a New Jersey native and former Trenton statehouse reporter for, shined a spotlight on the state’s crumbling unemployment system and won several awards for investigative reporting from the New Jersey Press Association. She was a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for her report on PetSmart's grooming practices, which was also recognized by the New York Press Club. Sophie speaks Spanish and is proud to connect to the Latinx community through her reporting.