Nebraska senator files bill to protect college student journalists from censorship

NEBRASKA — The Cornhusker State is the latest to join the growing wave of states with student press freedom legislation in the works.

Inspired by North Dakota’s success in passing an anti-censorship bill in April, campaigns have begun sprouting up across the country. Nebraska’s version of a ‘New Voices’ bill was introduced by Sen. Al Davis, a Republican, on Monday. The bill would guarantee student journalists at public universities and community colleges the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media, regardless of whether the publication receives financial support from the school or is produced as part of a class.

According to the bill, student journalists are to be responsible for determining the editorial and advertising content of school-sponsored media, as long as it is not libelous, an invasion of privacy, a violation of the law or disruptive and dangerous.

“College students at public institutions need a free and independent press to address issues which are relevant to students, and a press in which they can place full confidence,” Davis said in an email. “Students at that age are eligible to vote, eligible to serve in our military and should have the same protections as do the general population. We need to protect the voice of the popular and the unpopular at colleges, where a great deal of intellectual discussion takes place among students, faculty and the like.”

Nebraska’s bill differs from the legislation recently introduced in New Jersey and Missouri, and the newly-enacted law in North Dakota, in that it doesn’t extend the same protections to high school journalists.

Davis said he didn’t include high school journalists in the bill because he feels that college students are “more mature, more intellectually curious and closer to adulthood,” he said.

“There is a significant difference between a high school sophomore (who may not be old enough to drive), and a college senior who may be married, have children, be serving our nation in the National Guard and carries a full time job,” he said. “This bill recognizes those differences.”

Michael D. Kennedy, executive director of the Nebraska Collegiate Media Association who worked with Davis to draft the legislation, said anti-censorship legislation for high school journalists has failed in Nebraska before.

“We thought it would be a good idea to shoot for the colleges,” he said. “We thought that might be passed a little bit easier. That doesn’t necessarily mean we are ruling out [legislation for] high schools at a later time, [but] this was the direction we thought would be best for us.”

Kennedy said he’s not aware of any past examples of censorship at Nebraska college papers, but, he said, “if there is no legislation preventing censorship, then it can be applied.”

In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that high school administrators could censor school-sponsored newspapers as long as they had a “reasonable educational justification” and the censorship was viewpoint neutral. In 2006, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Hosty v. Carter that the Hazelwood standard could be applied to subsidized student newspapers at college.

The Hosty decision applies to public colleges only in the jurisdiction of the Seventh Circuit: Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. (Illinois has since passed a student free expression law protecting college journalists.) Still, when Kennedy learned more about the decision and other states’ legislative responses to it, he grew concerned that the Eighth Circuit court, which includes Nebraska, could adopt Hosty as the standard in future cases.

At the Nebraska Collegiate Media Association’s April conference, Kennedy formed a committee with two other college newspaper advisers. They pitched the idea of legislation protecting college journalists to Davis, who was “quite supportive,” Kennedy said.

“The First Amendment is one of the greatest tenants that we have, and it’s for everybody,” Kennedy said. “Yes, students make mistakes and make errors, but the egregiousness of those errors doesn’t justify silencing people. It’s not always pleasant … but when those errors get made, you move on. It’s when we silence that we run into real problems.”

Davis said he’s not yet sure what kind of support the bill will garner in the state Senate. It’s a short session — 60 days, ending on April 20 — so Davis said it will be difficult to secure passage without a priority motion.

“If it’s not successful now, we could look at the reasons it wasn’t successful and try again,” Kennedy said. “I think it’s important legislation for all of Nebraska — not just the colleges and higher education institutions but also for the communities that they serve and for everyone in the state.”

SPLC staff writer Madeline Will can be reached by email or at (202) 833-4614.

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