NEBRASKA — Legislation proposing a statewide student freedom of expression act inNebraska is up for public hearing next Tuesday.
The bill, LB 898, titled the Student ExpressionAct, was introduced by Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm, Nebraska and wouldprevent schools from restricting speech unless it is defamatory, obscene, orotherwise unprotected by the First Amendment.
“Our bill would require each school district to have a written policy thatexplicitly says what they can [do] and will not be allowed to do,” said Haar.
The bill would also provide protection for teachers, advisers andadministrators against retaliation in their pursuit of academic freedom forstudents. The bill also clarifies that schools and school personnel are notliable for what students say or write.
Dr. John Bender, executive director of Nebraska High School PressAssociation said that a bill of this nature is necessary to protect teachers andadvisers. “These are often people who are doing the best job…they’re trying toteach students to do good, solid, responsible journalism. That’s too often whatprincipals and superintendents don’t want they want public relations,” hesaid.
“There’s a lot of schools, particularly in the Omaha and Lincoln area, thatthis bill will have huge ramifications for because… every issue and everyyearbook spread is scrutinized by administration,” said Janelle Schultz,president of the Nebraska High School Press Association.
There have been 25 reported incidents of suppressing student expression inNebraska since 1998, according to a compilation of incidents from Sen. Haar’soffice.
Last October, at Bellevue East High School, a district superintendentchanged not only his answers to student newspaper staff questions, but alsochanged their questions to him, before allowing publication of the article inthe student newspaper. In the same month, a co-editor of the newspaperwrote an editorial encouraging students to attend local school board meetings.The high school principal said the article was “inappropriate” andwas pulled from the newspaper. The principal told the students they should beattending student council meetings rather than school board meetings.
In August 2008, a total of 23 students were suspended over a 3-day periodfor wearing memorial T-shirts dedicated to a friend who had been murdered bygunfire.
According to the bill, The intent of the Student Expression Act is to”clarify the expression of rights of Nebraska public school students, to reduceincidents where students’ lawful expression rights are suppressed, to instill instudents the value of democracy, and to prepare students for informed and activecivic participation.”
“We feel that if schools have reasonable policies in place it may actuallyprevent some lawsuits,” said Haar.
There are currently eight states with student free expression laws and twoothers with state regulations in place.