Legislative Bill Aims to Give Full Freedom of Speech Rights to Student Journalists

LINCOLN — How far does the first amendment reach?  That’s the question at the heart of a legislative bill making its way through the state legislature.

In Nebraska, it is legal for high school and college administrators to tell their school-sponsored publications what they can and cannot publish.  But, that could be changing this year.  State Senator Adam Morfeld is pushing the Student Journalist Protection Act in the Unicameral.  He says the bill is about the first amendment.

“A free press is supposed to be just that, a free press,” Morfeld said.  “We should be able to instill those skills and values in students at an early age.”

Morfeld’s bill would extend all freedom of speech rights to student journalists.  It’s a topic that hits home for him.  He was threatened with expulsion after starting an alternative newspaper in high school.

He says that, just like when he was a student, schools don’t like his proposal.  He says administrators are used to controlling their environment.

“But I think that it’s important that students learn the benefits of the first amendment firsthand but also the pitfalls of it as well.  It’s a learning process,” Morfeld said.  “That’s what we’re supposed to be doing in high school and college is creating good citizens.”

Opponents of the bill worry about potential legal issues for the schools that could come from a student’s story.  Northeast Community College instructor Nancy Sutton-Smith is the advisor for her college’s publication, the Viewpoint.  She says it’s a Catch 22.

“The journalism have to learn their craft and the way they learn their craft is to push the envelope.  The school doesn’t need the envelope pushed, they don’t want their dirty laundry out in public,” Sutton-Smith said.  “Both sides are really important.”

But overall, Sutton-Smith says she thinks student journalists need more protection.

“But the students’ voices need to be protected,” Sutton-Smith said.  “They need to be able to say and write about what’s happening on a college campus and sometimes colleges don’t want that out.”

LB 886 is scheduled for a hearing in the Judiciary Committee on Thursday.

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