Young and the Restless: In daring twist, legislators in Indiana keep New Voices legislation on life support

Rumors of New Voices legislation’s death in Indiana may have been exaggerated.

In a plot twist derived from the most daring daytime television, sponsors of HB 1130 proposed adding the language of the bill – protecting student journalists in high school and college from censorship – as an amendment to appropriations bill, HB 1043.

The original bill was pulled from Senate consideration in light of last-minute opposition from the state Department of Education.

On Monday, a joint House-Senate conference committee held public testimony on proposed changes to HB 1043, where a number of witnesses presented their arguments on both sides.

Austin Hood, a senior at Warren Central High School and student newspaper editor, brought a larger view of journalism to his testimony.

“Writers learn from the first story that no institution is too big to question, no individual is too powerful to avoid scrutiny,” Hood said. “What we are arguing is that we as student journalists should not live in fear of punishment for practicing good citizenship.”

His argument was backed up by journalists and journalism advisers, including Ruth Witmer, the student media director at Indiana University Bloomington; and Diana Hadley, executive director of the Indiana High School Press Association.

“Students who have the ability to decide content produce much better content,” Hadley said.

Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, called attention to language in the bill that entrusts responsibility with students for establishing editorial guidelines for student media in accordance with community standards. Lobbyists for school administrators had pushed to be the ones setting those standards, a proposal that proponents considered fatal to the bill.

“Who sets those community standards?” Key asked after pointing out that indefensible policies such as Jim Crow laws and segregation used to be considered “standard” in their day.

“If this is your voice and your community, shouldn’t you be setting those standards?”

This “community standards” provision has been a sticking point for organizations representing principals and school boards. When asked, associate director for the Association of High School Principals, Tim McRoberts, said he would like to see language including the administration in defining community standards.

McRoberts proudly declared that, in his 11 years as a high school principal, he was approached to approve numerous articles and never censored a single one. He argued that censorship isn’t a widespread issue in Indiana, and that any bad actors should instead be approached individually to educate them on journalistic practices.

In closing testimony, SPLC’s executive director, Frank LoMonte, testified to his years advocating for student journalists and their advisers. He highlighted the fact that similar laws or administrative codes exist in 11 other states and the District of Columbia for a combined 180 years of experience with student journalism under free press statutes.

Despite similar hand-wringing during the legislative process, those states have not seen any of the predicted “horribles” materialize and have quickly adjusted to the new standard.

For his part, Rep. Clere was grateful for the time given to present comprehensive testimony. Indiana’s legislature adjourns Friday, and this addition was only part of the changes made to HB 1043. The clock is ticking for the appropriations bill to pass the legislature.

“There’s quite a bit of process still to go,” Clere said. And, indeed, the committee did not take action on the proposed changes at Monday’s hearing

“There usually is not much testimony in conference committee,” Clere said. “And Representative [Jeff] Thompson is a good friend, and he was more than gracious to allow, I think about an hour of testimony on this journalism provision which is almost unheard of.”

“We are very grateful to him for his willingness to entertain it.”