Nebraska Senate Judiciary Committee hears testimony on student free press legislation

NEBRASKA — A committee of state senators heard testimony from student journalists and free press advocates on Thursday regarding a bill that would ensure college journalists in Nebraska have the same First Amendment protection as their professional counterparts.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the New Voices of Nebraska bill, which was introduced in January by Republican Sen. Al Davis, showed heavy support for increased student free speech and press rights in state colleges. The committee now must vote on the anti-censorship legislation.

Legislative Bill 885 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 incites students to create a clear and present danger.

Among those who testified in support for the bill were representatives from the Nebraska Press Association, the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska, and the Omaha North High School North Star.

No one in opposition to the bill gave testimony.

Allen Beermann, NPA executive director, said in his testimony that the only way for college journalists to learn professional responsibilities — such as journalism ethics — is to have those responsibilities.

He said currently, university officials in Nebraska could have jurisdiction over an article that was written, and could force it to be re-written or pulled.

Laurie Thomas Lee, a broadcasting professor at University of Nebraska-Lincoln who testified on behalf of AFCON, agreed that college journalists need the same protection as professional journalists. She said when the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which gave high school officials more leeway to censor school newspapers that are not public forums, is starting to be applied to colleges, something needs to be done.

Thomas Lee said when Hazelwood was decided, no one dreamed it would have anything to do with college journalists, but recent court cases have determined otherwise.

In 2005, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in Hosty v. Carter that college newspapers could be subject to the same amount of school control allowed under Hazelwood for high school newspapers. This was in response to a college newspaper publishing news stories and editorial critical of the administration.

“This bill is very much needed just in case something like what happened in Hosty happens in Nebraska,” Thomas Lee said.

While the legislation was inspired by North Dakota’s success in passing an anti-censorship bill in April, Nebraska differs from other states with similar campaigns — such as Missouri, Illinois and Maryland — in that it doesn’t extend the same protections to high school journalists.

Davis has previously told the Student Press Law Center that 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.”

Still, high school students’ voices were represented at the hearing.

Madison Pohlman, editor-in-chief of North Star, said though she wished the bill extended the same rights to high school students, it is still valuable to graduating seniors.

“When I’m trying to decide what school I’m going to go for college, I really look at where my rights are going to be protected,” Pohlman said. “They’re not protected in Nebraska.”

She said in order to keep Nebraska’s brightest and most intelligent student journalists in state, they need to feel like they will be extended full First Amendment protection in college.

Though Davis said at the hearing that this bill isn’t in response to any censorship incidents at Nebraska colleges, he thinks it is necessary to solidify college students’ free press rights in the state.

He said college journalists are capable individuals training to be professionals, and it doesn’t make sense not to offer them the same First Amendment protection.

“I agreed to bring this bill because a free society relies on free press,” Davis said.

SPLC staff writer Kaitlin DeWulf can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6317.

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