Free press, open meetings laws survive State House standoff

Free press, open meetings laws survive State House standoff

Edward Fitzpatrick, RWU director of media and public relations, a New England First Amendment Coalition and Common Cause Rhode Island board member, and a former Providence Journal columnist:

On June 30, an epic impasse between Rhode Island House and Senate leaders left the state’s $9.2-billion budget in limbo along with scores of other pieces of legislation. But amid the State House’s marble maze of power politics and clashing priorities, two bills managed to emerge at the last minute that will bolster press freedom and create a more open government.

Before the legislative session came to an abrupt halt, the House and the Senate had unanimously approved one of those bills – the Student Journalists’ Freedom of Expression Act, which protects student journalists and their advisers from censorship and retaliation.

To become law, the House and Senate versions of that bill needed to “cross over” for votes in the other chamber. But just as those votes were about to take place on June 30, the Senate moved to amend the budget and House Speaker Nicholas A. Mattiello, D-Cranston, sent the House home in protest.

“We thought that was it,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, based in Washington, D.C. “I was staying up, watching and refreshing the (General Assembly) website until 10:30 p.m. before I gave up hope.”

But just before midnight, Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Rhode Island affiliate, contacted LoMonte, saying the Senate had passed the House version of the student press freedom bill. “That was a little more thrilling of a roller-coaster ride than I would have liked,” LoMonte said. “But I am happy where it landed.”

The Senate bill, introduced by Sen. Gayle L. Goldin, D-Providence, landed in limbo. But the House bill, introduced by Rep. Jeremiah T. O’Grady, D-Lincoln, landed on Gov. Gina M. Raimondo’s desk, and she signed it into law on July 18.

So why does the new law matter? Let two student journalists explain.

Peder S. Schaefer, editor of the Providence Country Day student newspaper, The Roundtable, noted that earlier this year student journalists in Kansas dug into the background of their newly hired principal, revealing questionable credentials and leading to her abrupt resignation.

“This bill would enable stories like that to happen,” Schaefer said. “Especially in high school, schools have the power to shut things like that down very quickly. This bill puts protections in place that allow students to go after stories like that or to write about school policies such as school start times.”

Mary Lind, co-editor of the Lincoln High School student newspaper, The Lion’s Roar, said she called state legislators and the governor’s office, urging them to adopt the law to prevent the “horror stories” of censorship in other parts of the country.

“It will show students in Rhode Island that although they’re under 18, their voices still matter and that they are still reliable sources,” she said. “They are not fake news.”

Back in March 2016, I wrote about how a student at The Met High School, Yanine Castedo, launched the local push for a student press freedom bill, working with the Providence Student Union. Zack Mezera, executive director of the Providence Student Union, said student journalists now won’t have to worry about censorship if, for example, they write about the condition of school buildings.

More broadly, he said, “It protects journalism in an age when journalism is under attack, and it sends a message about protecting youth as people with valid, legitimate experiences.”

Rhode Island became the 13th state to pass a student press freedom law, joining Nevada and Vermont in enacting such a law this year. And LoMonte noted the House and Senate floor votes were unanimous, saying, “It’s always gratifying that support crosses party lines and ideological lines. Freedom of the press should not be a partisan or political issue.”

LoMonte also noted that the new Rhode Island law protects high school and college journalists in both public and private schools. “You could argue that it’s the most comprehensive law of its kind in the country,” he said. “It’s certainly one we will show to other states as a model.”

Such laws are necessary, LoMonte explained, because the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier upheld the right of a public high school to censor student newspaper stories about teen pregnancy and the effects of divorce on children. Since then, states have been passing “anti-Hazelwood” laws.

And now LoMonte hopes Rhode Island schools will adopt rules reflecting the new law so that disputes over student journalism can be handled internally rather than in state court.

The student press freedom law wasn’t the only bill to narrowly escape Smith Hill purgatory on June 30. Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey, D-Warwick, and Rep. Evan P. Shanley, D-Warwick, had introduced legislation to make two significant changes to state open meetings law. While McCaffrey’s bill ended up in limbo, the Senate passed the House version, and Raimondo signed that bill into law on July 18.

The new law requires all public bodies to keep minutes of open meetings (not just on the state level but also the city and town level), and it excludes weekends and holidays from the calculation of the 48-hour public notice requirement.

“These reforms to the open meetings act were significant and will affect every citizen of Rhode Island positively,” said John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “Right now, municipalities don’t have to put minutes online but they’re going to have to. That’s great because there are a lot more municipal bodies than state bodies, and they affect citizens on a daily basis – setting  property taxes, hiring school superintendents, managing municipal pensions.”

The ACLU had reviewed public meeting notices a couple of years ago. “And we were quite shocked to see how often public bodies posted notices of a Monday meeting late on a Friday afternoon,” Brown said. “These weren’t just small agencies no one has heard of; these were city councils and school committees. It’s not only that people don’t learn about the meetings in advance but they have very little time to prepare if they want to speak out on an issue.”

Marion said the idea for the new law originated with some conservative constituents in McCaffrey’s district. “Open government is an issue that unites the left and the right,” he said.

Indeed, that’s a key lesson for students of journalism and politics: A free press and open government serve both sides of the partisan divide, helping to inform citizens and hold whoever is in power accountable.