INDIANA—A bill to protect the free expression rights of student journalists died unexpectedly in the Indiana Senate today.
On the last day for bills to be eligible to clear their second legislative chamber, House Bill 1130 was scheduled for a final confirmation vote, having cleared a preliminary vote successfully a day earlier.
But its Senate sponsor, Sen. Brandt Hershman (R-Renssalaer), moved it down the docket and eventually removed it from consideration. Late-game doubt had surfaced among Hershman’s fellow Senate Republicans after a blindsiding notice of opposition to the legislation by Jennifer McCormick, superintendent of public instruction for the Indiana Department of Education.
Hoosier State Press Association Executive Director and General Counsel Steve Key, an advocate of the legislation, explained that the withdrawal was last-ditch attempt to save the bill’s language and sentiment.
“Sen. Hershman didn’t feel that the votes were there and so he did not call it down at all which means that the bill dies, but … because the language passed out of the House, the language is still alive and would be eligible to be added onto another bill if another bill is in conference committee,” Key said. “So while the bill died, the language is still alive, but maybe on life-support.”
Finding a bill to tack onto in conference committee may prove to be a difficult task, however. It would need to be germane, meaning another education bill, and concept is now proven to be controversial.
Key said the bill’s author, Rep. Ed Clere (R-New Albany), will begin looking for such legislation after the House and Senate finish second passages today. The part-time Indiana legislative session adjourns in two weeks.
The bill, which is modeled after New Voices legislation in other states, showed great promise passing out of the House with a vote of 88-4. It was scheduled for a vote in the Senate the same week that news of an investigation by high school journalists in Pittsburg, Kansas garnered national support for student press freedom after it resulted in the resignation of the school’s newly-hired principal.
While Key said the real game-changer for Indiana lawmakers was the 11th hour opposition by the state’s Department of Education – which apparently heard complaints from principals and superintendents associations without ever reaching out to the bill’s sponsors – he noted that some opposing legislators were skewing the Pittsburg, Kansas, story to fit a different narrative.
“We were told by a legislator that the opponents were trying to basically spin that story that the students had done in Kansas as a bad thing,” Key said. “They put it, ‘Look what would happen under this bill; principals would get fired.’ They were trying to twist what was an example of the kind of excellent work student journalists can do at the high school level and trying to turn it into a negative, but I can’t say that that was what the issue of the legislators we talked to.”
Adam Maksl, executive director of the Indiana Collegiate Press Association, said the D.O.E.’s opposition could be attributed to a turnover of administration.
“It’s disappointing since the supporters and journalism teachers in Indiana have worked a long time with the Department of Education,” Maksl said. “This is a new office; the leadership has changed due to a recent election and maybe there’s not as much memory for what student journalists have done in Indiana.”
SPLC staff writer Molly Cooke can be reached by email or (202) 785-5451.
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