Bills would protect students who report threats from libel lawsuits

Two Western states are moving to encourage students to reportthreats of school violence by shielding them from defamation laws.

In response to recent school shootings, legislators in Californiaand Nevada propose giving immunity from libel laws to those whoreport a threat to a school official or potential victim in goodfaith.

The Nevada legislation, SB 572, would apply to any person withinformation about a threat against a student of school employee.However, it is not clear whether student or professional newspaperswould be protected from suits if they reported a warning of violence.

The sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Valerie Wiener, D-Las Vegas,said the proposal is an effort "to create a good faith opportunityfor people to come forward" and report threats, without havingto fear lawsuits from the people they accuse.

Most troubling, Wiener said, is a defamation suit against thefamily of a California teen who told school officials that a classmatehad made a threat. The family now owes almost $40,000 in legalfees after the accused student sued, saying his reputation wasdamaged by the report of the threat.

Wiener said she wants to make sure people are encouraged toreport threats to prevent more tragedies. She cited a case inNevada where a student warned school officials of a classmate’splan to open fire at a school assembly.

"But for his coming forward, we probably would have surpassedthe numbers of Columbine," Wiener said. "We would havetaken Columbine’s numbers and probably dwarfed them."

Proponents of the Nevada bill cite a U.S. Secret Service studythat found in 75 percent of recent school shootings, perpetratorstold other students or adults about their plans before the attack.

In California, a similar bill was proposed by AssemblywomanCharlene Zettel, who represents Santee-the site of a recent schoolshooting where two students were killed after a 15-year-old openedfire in a bathroom.

In that case, the suspect reportedly told several classmatesand an adult that he was going to bring a gun to school, but apparentlythe warnings were not passed on to school officials.

Zettel’s bill, AB 1717, is similar to the Nevada proposal,giving school employees, students, and parents immunity from libelsuits.

The California bill passed the state’s lower chamber by a voteof 72-0, and awaits consideration in the Senate. The Nevada billhas been given fast-track treatment, and will likely pass bothchambers before the end of the year’s session.

The text of SB 572 is available on the Nevada legislature’s Web site at: text of AB 1717 is available on the California legislature’s Web site at: