Amended New Voices bill passes Indiana Senate committee

INDIANA—The Indiana Senate’s Education and Career Development Committee voted to pass an amended student press freedom bill on Wednesday.

House Bill 1130, which is modeled after New Voices legislation passed in other states, cleared the committee on a 10-3 vote after the addition of Amendment #10, which dilutes several aspects of the original bill.

These alterations include changing the meaning of “student journalist” to start from grade 9 instead of grade 5, removing advertising content from the list of material under student control and allowing for a student journalist to appeal to the state board of education rather than a court in the case of a dispute with a school administrator.

Perhaps most significantly, the revised language now would allow a high school administrator to censor journalism on the grounds that it “violates community standards.”

It also removes language that identifies school sponsored media at a state educational institution as a public forum for a student journalist.

The lead author of HB 1130, Rep. Ed Clere (R-New Albany), speaking just after the bill passed the committee, said that he would need to look closely at the amendment with the supporters of the bill to see if there is anything they would like to consider further.

“An earlier amendment was drafted that would have gutted the bill, and that amendment was not considered, so that was certainly a relief,” Clere said. “This amendment does a number of things, and it combines three others that had been drafted including one that I worked on to clear up some technical issues. But there are still some things we’d like to work on.”

HB 1130 provides limited freedom of press protections for high school students, outlining that a public school, school corporation or state educational institution may not censor or suppress school sponsored media unless the content meets certain unprotected categories, such as material that is libelous, slanderous or gratuitously profane.

The bill passed the Indiana House of Representatives on Feb. 21 with an 88-4 vote following the addition of a few clarifying amendments in the House Education Committee on Feb. 16. These amendments included protecting schools and colleges against legal liability for students’ speech.

Prior to the Senate committee hearing, Clere met with Chair of the Committee Sen. Dennis Kruse and Senate bill sponsor Sen. Brandt Hershman and had what he called a series of positive conversations about the bill.

Co-sponsor of HB 1130 Sen. Eddie Melton emailed SPLC a statement of support for the bill following the committee vote.

“HB 1130 would provide protections for student journalists across the state that many other students across the nation are already benefitting from,” Melton wrote. “The bill contains the necessary language to prevent students from publishing anything libelous or slanderous and simply extends the First Amendment rights that professional journalists have to the students who are studying to become those professionals.”

Clere now plans to meet with the three journalistic organizations that worked with him on the bill – the Indiana High School Press Association, the Indiana Collegiate Press Association and the Hoosier State Press Association – to analyze the amended bill and decide on priorities going forward.

“I want to meet with all three of them and see where we are and evaluate the language as it stands and decide what changes we might like to pursue,” Clere said. “At this point we are continuing through the process and that is very positive. The fact the bill received a hearing and moved through the committee is very encouraging.”

Clere was a student journalist in high school and maintains close connections to the field – his daughter is assistant news editor at the same student paper he worked for, and his wife worked as a professional journalist.

“The Hazelwood decision continues to cast a shadow over student journalism and as a result the quality of student journalism programs suffers – there are many excellent programs, but that’s not the case everywhere. So one of the objectives here is to support and improve journalism education and we know that where there is greater freedom for student journalists, there tend to be better programs,” Clere said.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier case was a startling move that upheld a Missouri school’s right to censor stories written by student journalists.

The ruling deprived student journalists of the First Amendment rights afforded to professionals, allowing school administrators to censor student press by arguing that their publications did not constitute a public forum for free expression unless explicitly designated as such – a designation now withheld by Indiana’s approved amendment.

As he examines the implications of the amendment, Clere hopes that the positive response to HB 1130 will continue as the bill moves to the Senate floor, noting the relevance of this legislation given the national conversation on the media.

“It’s also timely because of a lot of the current discussions about media bias and fake news and alternative facts and social media and the changing role of traditional media,” Clere said. “It’s also very important for students and for school communities for the practical civics education it offers, not just for the student journalists but for the broader school community. And not just civics, but important reporting and commentary that sparks necessary conversations and changes in schools.”

HB 1130 will move to the Senate calendar next week when it will be eligible for second reading and further amendment. Clere is hopeful that the bill sponsors won’t have to fight any adverse amendments and that there will be an opportunity to make a few more minor changes.

“I am optimistic that the bill will become law,” Clere said. “We’ve just got to make sure we get to the best bill possible, which may require more work and tweaks.”

SPLC staff writer Jessica Kelham-Hohler can be reached by email or (202) 974-6317

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