‘Husker Do! Live from Lincoln Senate, students take center stage

Michael Kennedy of the Nebraska Collegiate Media Association is interviewed by high-school journalists in advance of his Senate Judiciary Committee testimony.

As a high-school student in Sioux Falls, S.D., Adam Morfeld was threatened with expulsion for distributing a homemade “underground” newspaper. Funny thing about those high-school troublemakers: Sometimes they have long memories.

In 2018, state senator Adam Morfeld sat before the Nebraska Senate Judiciary Committee to explain why he’s proposing a law (LB 886) to protect today’s student journalists and their teachers against coercion and retaliation for coverage of sensitive or unflattering school news. The bill, he told senators, is “critical to the development of current and future civic leaders.”

(I submitted written testimony you can read here, along with a copy of the American Bar Association’s resonant resolution calling on states to enact New Voices reforms.)

The bill has a powerhouse lineup of endorsers including the Nebraska Press Association, Nebraska Broadcasters Association, the Nebraska State Education Association (which represents teachers) and the Academic Freedom Coalition of Nebraska (comprised of present and retired college faculty).

At the hearing, several students from Omaha’s Millard West High School shared disturbing stories of a hostile educational environment resulting in the retaliatory transfer of a well-credentialed journalism adviser, Lisa Lukecart, just weeks after her students’ Pawprint newspaper won state champion honors. Student editor Trevor Lueck said he expected that even his coverage of Thursday’s hearing would face censorship pressure, because “we were told politics has no place in a high-school newspaper.”

A dozen current or recently graduated student journalists from across the state testified in support of Morfeld’s bill, some driving from as far as five hours away for Thursday’s hearing. The measure restores the limited degree of legally protected press freedom that federal courts recognized before the Supreme Court took it away in 1988 with Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, but leaves high-school administrators with the authority to restrain publication of material that is unlawful or likely to incite disruption.

Omaha high-school adviser Justine Garman told senators of a daily gantlet of harassment and retaliation that persisted for five years under a previous principal, even though the school board’s own policies — on paper — forbid censorship. “Students are not going to run amok,” she told the committee. “They’re not going to publish anything they want. It’s not fake news.”

By the end of the marathon evening, committee chair Sen. Laura Ebke, R-Crete, who’d entered the day uncommitted, said she’d not only vote for the bill but sign on as a co-sponsor. All four of the attending senators (out of a total committee membership of eight) committed to support the bill, which likely will be called back for a vote — with possible amendments — in about two weeks.

Similar legislation has been proposed several times in Nebraska, but has stalled in the Senate Education Committee. This year, proponents believe the chances are better because Morfeld succeeded in getting the bill assigned to the Judiciary Committee, which has greater expertise in constitutional law.

Because Nebraska has a unique unicameral (one-chamber) legislature, the Senate’s vote on LB 886 will be conclusive. The session is scheduled to end on or before March 29.

Students waited attentively through a grueling three hours of testimony about a proposed statewide referendum asking voters to weigh in on legalizing cannabis for medicinal use. By the time debate on LB 886 began, senators had been at the table approaching five hours — yet they attentively listened to 15 presenters explain the merits of protecting journalism students and educators.

Only a handful of opponents turned out, including the lobbyist for of the Nebraska Association of School Boards, who said some of his member institutions were uncomfortable relinquishing their current level of control.

He left with his own schooling from veteran Sen. Ernie Chambers: “I’m not inclined to hold this bill until some old mossbacks such as myself get around to looking at it with fear and trembling.”