Student Journalists Seek Protection With House Bill

Feb 14, 2017

Student journalists descended on the Indiana Statehouse Tuesday to demand First Amendment protections for themselves.

Wearing matching blue T-shirts emblazoned with #BeHeard high school and college-age students testified about how student-powered journalism impacts their schools and why lawmakers should support legislation that would shield their investigations or reports on controversial topics from administrative censorship.

Selena Qian, a Carmel High School senior, said the Carmel administration supports student reporters and the staff who advise them. Censorship of the monthly news magazine HiLite is not an issue, Qian said, but students at other schools face pressures to tone down stories or avoid them all together.

“Freedom of press really shouldn’t be a matter of luck. It should be written into law with this bill because student publications should always be the work and responsibilities of the students,” said Qian, one of more than a dozen students to attend the House Education Committee. “Never should students have to worry about censorship of what they’ve spent hours outside of school creating.”

House Bill 1130 would prevent public K-12 schools from disciplining students for expressing their First Amendment rights in a school-funded publication. It also stops school officials from censoring publications unless the content is libelous or slanderous.

The bill would require local school boards to have written policies governing oversight of student publications, including physical and online newspapers and magazines.

Stephen Key, Hoosier State Press Association executive director, said teachers and students in Indiana have been disciplined for publications that covered issues that upset school leaders.

When asked why no students who have faced censorship attended the committee hearing, Key said those students have been taught to feel that “their rights to express themselves can be subjugated by an administrator.”

“This bill doesn’t give a blank check to any students. They still fall under the responsibilities of journalism,” Key said. “They will still, if you pass this bill, be working with journalism advisors.”

But some lawmakers, like Republican Woody Burton of Whiteland, worried the bill would still give students too much freedom.

“What happens if some student decides they want to write an article that might be detrimental to kids who might be thinking of killing themselves?,” Burton asked.

The Supreme Court set legal precedence on school newspapers in the 1988 case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. The case found that First Amendment rights of student journalists are not violated when school officials prevent the publication of certain articles in the school newspaper, according to the U.S. Federal Courts website.

But Key said that allowed an opening for overzealous administrators to censor publications under the cover of “legitimate pedagogical concerns,” meaning if a student’s article was deemed to interfere with teaching it could be censored.

The proposed legislation, Key continued, would prevent that but allow schools to set a clear policy under state law.

Tuesday’s hearing lasted more than one hour before it was halted after time ran out for use of the House chambers. Testimony for the bill will resume Thursday.

Contact WFYI education reporter Eric Weddle at eweddle@wfyi.org or call (317) 614-0470. Follow on Twitter: @ericweddle.