Neb. legislator reintroduces student speech bill

NEBRASKA — A modified bill aimed at statewideprotection for student freedom of speech has been reintroduced in the Nebraskalegislature.

Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm, Neb., introduced theStudent Expression Act, or LB582, on Jan. 19. He said the bill acknowledges theallowances the Supreme Court has given school districts to limit rights, but hewants to encourage schools to adopt their own policy.

The bill provides that, “The right of studentsto free expression in all public schools in Nebraska shall not be abridgedexcept as provided in the Student Expression Act.”

It would give students the rights to assemblepeacefully on school property, as well as create, write, publish, perform,express and distribute thoughts or beliefs. Censorship would only be permittedwhen student expression is obscene, defamatory, invades privacy or presents asubstantial disruption to the school.

Haar introduced a similar student expression bill in the 2010 session, but it failed to pass through the EducationCommittee. The new bill doesn’t require that school districts adopt a studentexpression policy; instead, they are encouraged to do so.

Another section of the previous bill, whichsaid “no public school employee or administrator shall be fired, transferred,reassigned, or removed” for protecting student free speech rights, has alsobeen removed.

Tom Green, legislative aide to Haar, said the NebraskaState Education Association felt teachers were already covered under theircollective bargaining agreement.

He also said the language was simplified toease the concerns raised by opponents of the previous bill.

“[School districts] wouldn’t have tochange their policies,” he said. “They were concerned about the cost ofpublishing and updating their policy with short notice … but of course they’dhave to follow state law so it really wasn’t as important to have the policy.”

Green said students and teachers would have their freedom ofexpression protected under state statute, whether the school district has apolicy or not.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press LawCenter, said he’s glad to see Nebraska moving in this direction and extremelyappreciative that Haar is taking on something for which there is no lobby andno special-interest support.

“The bill might benefit from some clarification so thateveryone understands that the right is mandatory and is not a matter ofdistrict option,” he said. “The language as it’s written now might give theimpression that a district can opt-out of protecting student speech by policyand that can’t be what was intended. It’s really going to be a matter ofsomebody bringing a test case to seeing if it has real teeth or not.”

Haar said there have been cases in Nebraska inwhich students have been told certain topics, such as teenage pregnancy orracial issues within a school, are off limits for student publications becausethey might put the school in a bad light.

“The ultimate goal is to affirm that justbecause they’re students doesn’t mean they don’t have First Amendment rights,”Haar said. “I think the worst lesson that we can teach the kids is thatsomebody can just step in and say, ‘Whoops, you shouldn’t have done that,’ or‘You can’t be critical.’”

Michael S. Dulaney, executive director of the NebraskaCouncil of School Administrators, said school administrators are concerned withprotecting the interests and security of all students, as well as the safeoperation of their districts.

“The problem, of course, especially in this day and age withcyberbullying being such a prevalent issue, is whether a student would beoffended by the free expression of another student,” he said. “That’s a verydelicate line to walk. Most school administrators are thinking it’s in theirbest interests and the best interest of the students to have some limitation onthat.”

He said the organization doesn’t necessarily believe thatthe state needs to make schools adopt a policy, because they have thatprerogative right now.

“We certainly appreciate the fact that this particularversion of his bill is more palatable to school districts than previousattempts that required such a policy to be adopted,” Dulaney said.

The bill will have a public hearing March 8,which is required of every bill introduced in the unicameral legislature. Sevenstates have free expression statutes protecting high school students andstudent journalists.

“One of the fears from adults is that they’renot going to be able to control young people,” Haar said. “That comes fromschool board members, it comes from administrators, it comes from teachers, itcomes from parents. I don’t believe that’s the way you teach democracy.”

Calls to the Nebraska StateEducation Association were not returned as of press time.