Nebraska free expression bill languishes in committee, could be revived next year

Nebraska high school students hoping for state-protected student expression rights will have to wait a little longer.

Nebraska State Sen. Ken Haar proposed the Student Expression Act, L.B. 582, in January. The bill sought to “protect the First Amendment rights of public school students in order to instill in students the value of democracy and to prepare students for informed and active civic participation.”

But the bill did not make it to a committee vote before the end of the legislative session, leaving its status uncertain. Tom Green, Haar’s legislative aide, said Nebraska bills can carry over for up to two years without being voted on, meaning L.B. 582 has a chance at being considered when the next legislative term starts in January 2012.

“We did our budget this year, which is why most non-budget-related school issues didn’t really get a lot of time in committees,” Green explained. “It may get more time next year now that we’ve passed our budget, and we’ve done the whole state aid formula for schools, so it might be a way to get more action on the bill.”

Peggy Adair, the legislative coordinator for the Academic Freedom Committee of Nebraska (AFCON), said the fact that the bill has yet to receive a vote is not promising.

“There are eight members on the Education Committee, and it requires an affirmative vote of five of those members to move a bill out of committee to the floor for full debate by the entire legislature,” she said. “Quite honestly, at this point I doubt we have the five votes needed to move the bill. My guess is either the bill will languish in committee or the committee will outright kill the bill.”

That’s what happened to the last Student Expression Act bill Haar proposed in 2010, L.B. 898. After a hearing in the Education Committee, the bill was “indefinitely postponed” and never acted on. In an attempt to prevent a similar stall, the 2011 legislation was stripped of its more controversial elements, including removing liability protection for teachers, but still maintained its core message of protecting student rights, Adair said.

Green thought that this year’s bill had more support from teachers and administrators than the previous bill because it removed requirements that schools develop their own free speech policies, which he said schools tended to view as a mandate.

“In Nebraska, mandate is a four-letter word. Schools do not like any mandate of any kind on them,” Green said. “What our thought was with this bill was that [the state] could provide a definite, fairly low standard for schools to meet, but make sure everyone’s meeting the same standard. They can go up above and beyond that, of course, but it would actually help the schools by having a state law that wouldn’t have to go school by school.”

If L.B. 582 does not go through, Nebraska students at schools without protective student expression codes will remain subject to the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood censorship standard.

“We hear from journalism teachers that they’re getting told that basically the school newspaper becomes nothing but propaganda for the school,” Green said. “How [do students] learn how to responsibly have freedom of expression if you’re not allowed to disagree with anyone in the school newspaper? It’s not much of a newspaper, then, if opinions aren’t allowed.”

Adair said she has high hopes for the future, whether or not this particular bill goes through.

“This bill, or a similar bill, has a chance as long as we have one person willing to go to the legislature to ask for a student expression bill, and we have one senator who is willing to sponsor the bill,” Adair said. “The only time it has no chance is when we quit trying.”

Seven other states have already passed laws protecting the expression rights of high school students.