Bill would seek more autonomy for student publications

February 3, 2019

Nebraska high school journalists are well aware that the stories they write must be acceptable to their school administrators.

“It’s not about whether it’s accurate,” said Gracia Lantis, an editor of North Platte High School’s newspaper. “It’s about whether or not the story is good for my school’s image. Knowing that schools are supposed to teach democracy and civics, this makes no sense to me.”

Lantis and other students, along with journalism teachers, testified Friday before the Nebraska Legislature in favor of a measure introduced by State Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln.

Legislative Bill 206 would establish greater independence for high school and college newspapers from their schools’ administrations.

Lantis said she was worried that printing the truth could mean the end of the newspaper or could cost her teacher her job.

“Speaking today makes me nervous for my job security,” said Lori Larson, the North Platte High School journalism teacher.

“I do not want to dumb down the curriculum just to make everything look great,” she said.

The bill would protect journalism teachers and students from punishment if they refuse to curtail student speech in the media at the wishes of school administrators. It also protects school districts from being held responsible in any civil or criminal case regarding the published work of a student journalist.

Under the bill, students would not have the right to publish material that is libelous or slanderous; constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy; violates federal or state law; or “so incites students” as to create a dangerous situation, violate policies of the institution or substantially disrupt the institution’s operation.

Specific accusations were made against many more high school administrations, current and former, in more than an hour of testimony in favor of the bill.

Those schools include Omaha Burke, Millard West, Bellevue East, Gretna, Benson and Hastings.

“(Censorship) is rampant across the state,” said Angela Wolfe, a Nebraska High School Press Association board member.

She said most of the emails she gets from high school journalism advisers are questions about how to handle censorship by administrators.

LB 206 deems school-sponsored media to be public forums.

Similar legislation has been passed in 14 states, including Iowa, Kansas and Colorado, according to the Student Press Law Center.

The bill aims to provide a legislative fix to legal precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier in 1988.

In its decision in that case, the Supreme Court essentially gave school districts the final say, writing that schools have the right to prevent publication of stories they find to be inappropriate.

The court said the student newspaper was not intended to be a public forum.

Proponents of LB 206 argued that young journalists should be taught to speak truth to power, not that it’s OK to censor.

“They come back (after being censored), and they don’t have the fire, and they’re scared,” Wolfe said.

Wednesday was Student Press Freedom Day, as declared by the Student Press Law Center. Student newspapers across the country published editorials recognizing the day, including the Daily Nebraskan at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The bill drew opposition from an attorney over wording in the bill and from the Nebraska Catholic Conference, which wants private institutions to be exempt from the bill. It drew letters of opposition from the Nebraska State College System, the Nebraska Association of School Boards, the Nebraska Council of School Administrators and the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association.

The Nebraska State Education Association, Media of Nebraska, the Nebraska Broadcasters Association and the ACLU of Nebraska supported the measure.

Morfeld also introduced the bill last year, but it never advanced from the Judiciary Committee, the same panel that heard the bill Friday.

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