New Voices bill killed in Indiana House

INDIANA — Indiana’s New Voices bill to protect student journalists’ rights failed in the House Feb. 5 after it fell short of the 51 votes needed for passage to the Senate. The House voted 47 to 44 in favor.

“It’s just disappointing,” said Ryan Gunterman, the executive director of the Indiana High School Press Association. “Even the fact that we had more yes votes than no votes … is a win. Moral victories are great and all, but they don’t determine the First Amendment climate in the state of Indiana, and unfortunately, that climate is toxic.”

Last year, a similar bill passed the House 88 to 4, but it was never called to the Senate floor for a vote, said Rep. Edward Clere, R-New Albany, the bill’s author.

House Bill 1016 would have guaranteed press freedom for students in grades seven through 12. Public schools and school corporations would not have been able to censor student media operations unless certain conditions applied. Libel, illegal activity of any kind, and inciting students to disrupt the school’s operation were not protected by the bill.

HB1016 would have also required public and charter schools to create a policy regarding student journalists protections. Each year, a student media adviser would supervise the students in creating rules and guidelines for student publications. School officials would not be responsible for injury resulting from any content produced by a student journalist, except for some circumstances, such as negligence or misconduct. 

In addition, student media advisers, principals and superintendents could not be punished for refusing to infringe on students’ press rights.

Both the Kokomo Tribune and News and Tribune published opinions in favor of the bill’s passage. In January, The Indianapolis Star ran a story on a case of high school censorship and how the legislation could have prevented it.

Clere said it would still give principals and administrators the power of prior review, which would allow them to ensure content followed the guidelines outlined by the bill. It protects school officials more than last year’s bill, he said.

“It goes even further in protecting teachers, administrators and communities,” Clere said. “Schools retain a high level of control.”

Several representatives spoke against the bill, including two former school administrators, Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, and Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Mount Vernon. Cook said the bill would “erode the school principal’s and corporation’s authority.” He said the bill was “unnecessary” and based on “very few questionable decisions.”

McNamara said students “lack the basic brain development that they need” when referring to why children do not get full constitutional rights.

“And as adults, it’s our responsibility to guide them and show them the modeling,” she said.

Rep. Robert Morris, R-Fort Wayne, also spoke against the legislation, saying that “we’re trying to make the school look the same way as these people that write about the fake news on a daily basis.”

He said the bill would remove the principal –– whom he referred to as “the editor” –– from the process.

“I’ve had a handful of reporters write stories about me, and I wish they’d write more stories about the good things I do,” Morris said. “And folks, I sure wish I could teach that journalism class because I could have a lot of good stories coming out of there.”

The bill’s co-author, Rep. Edward DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, refuted many of the dissenting claims, calling on his colleagues to “read the bill.” He emphasized the bill “specifically allows a school to require prior review.”

The bill failed even though many of the arguments against it were false, Gunterman said. He also praised Clere and DeLaney for their work, but said he was not sure if there would be a similar piece of legislation next year.

“Who knows if this bill is going to come up again in the near future, but this issue is never ever going to go away.”

New Voices legislation is currently pending in six other states and has been passed in 13 states.

SPLC staff writer Taylor Potter can be reached by email or at (202) 478-1926. He is on Twitter @wmtaylorpotter.

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