New Legislative Bill introduced at the capital building in Lincoln

Bill aims to protect First Amendment rights for Nebraska student journalists

Alex Retzlaff, Reporter

Nebraska State Senator Adam Morfeld introduced Legislative Bill 206 (LB 206) on Friday, Feb. 1 at the capital building in Lincoln. The bill is an attempt to establish laws protecting the First Amendment rights of student journalists and also create protections for their advisers.

LB 206 seeks to grant student journalists and their newspapers protection from administrative repercussions in the event of journalists publishing controversial material. In addition, the bill would overturn the ruling of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier by granting these same protections to students at the high school level.

According to the official case summary, in 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier that school officials have the authority to censor certain material in high school newspapers. The bill also seeks to provide protection to college student journalists from the Hosty v. Carter decision of 2005, which stated that colleges could be held to the same censorship standards as high schools.

Michael Kennedy, an instructor of journalism and student newspaper advisor at one of the Nebraska state colleges, and executive director of Northern Plains Collegiate Media Association, believes high school student journalists have a right to these privileges as part of their education.

“The main thing is that [the bill] basically teaches students at both levels how to engage in a civil manner,” Kennedy said.  “It teaches writing, critical thinking, responsibility and legal ethical decision-making. I’m a firm believer in the First Amendment, and nowhere does it say in the Constitution that you only get to enjoy press freedom once you reach college. That’s something that everybody should enjoy.”

Morfeld, the Nebraska state Senator who introduced the bill, feels the rights of Nebraska citizens are worth the effort, and is optimistic that the bill will become law.

“I think that student journalists should have the freedom to exercise their First Amendment rights in public schools,” Morfeld said. “Schools are a place to build future residents and citizens, so in order for people to fully understand their rights, they have to be able to exercise their rights.”

The bill, however, faces multiple challenges from influential institutions. Opponents who testified against the bill include the Nebraska Association of School Boards, the Nebraska Council of School Administrators, the Nebraska State College System and the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association. One opponent, NCSA Executive Director Michael Dulaney, wrote a letter of opposition stating that he feels the bill will hinder the education factor of the school newspapers.

“Media is a much larger and viral form of communication than traditional hard copy materials,” Dulaney said. “Teachers and administrators must be prudent in reviewing student work in order to instruct efficiently. Mistakes in communication can go viral before corrections are made and therefore make moot attempts to correct damages to innocent individuals and/or incorrect statements.”

Despite the opposition, Morfeld remains confident in the bill’s chance for success. In addition, Aaron Hegarty, a reporter for the Omaha World Herald, reported that states like Kansas, Iowa and Colorado have already passed similar bills into law.

“I think it’s got a pretty good chance,” Morfeld said. “I think it will get out of committee, and I think it will have a good floor debate. There are a lot of factors in regards to any state bill, but I feel pretty optimistic about our chances.”

The date for the bill’s floor debate is still undecided at this time.