For third time, New Voices bill gets a hearing in Nebraska

Photo by Julia Holmquist

NEBRASKA — A bill protecting the First Amendment rights of Nebraska students and their advisers got its third hearing since 2016 in the state legislature on Feb. 1.

Legislative Bill 206, the Nebraska version of the nationwide effort to pass “New Voices” bills in state legislatures, effectively counteracts and clarifies the limits of the 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court decision. The Hazelwood decision greatly expanded the ability of public school administrators to control the content of student media.

Grassroots nonpartisan coalitions powered by students and other volunteers started a renewed push for New Voices legislation around the country in 2015-16. These state laws protect the First Amendment press rights of student journalists and prevent retaliation against their advisers and teachers, with bills expected to be introduced in about 10 states this year.

Eight lawmakers on the Nebraska legislature’s Judiciary Committee heard testimony Friday on LB 206. Lawmakers will vote in executive session on whether to advance the measure in the coming weeks, said Nebraska state Senator and bill sponsor Adam Morfeld (District 46).  A date has not been set. Nebraska’s legislature is unique among all state legislatures in the nation because it is unicameral, meaning it has a single-house system.

Madi Pohlman, a former high school journalist and current University of Nebraska-Omaha student has traveled to the state capitol in Lincoln to testify in support of all three versions of the Nebraska New Voices bill.

“If you want a populus of educated people, you need to allow journalists to educate people,” Pohlman said. “And this journalism starts in high school.”

Pohlman is hopeful that the bill has a better chance of passing this year, if nothing else because of logistics — The Nebraska legislature alternates the length of its sessions every year, with 2019’s session being a longer year, scheduled to meet through June 6. Pohlman hopes that it has a better chance of passing because lawmakers have more time than last year.

Pohlman’s high school media adviser, Hillary DeVoss, has been helping to organize students, media advisers and others to support the Nebraska New Voices bill. Several states that border Nebraska have had New Voices laws on the books for years, she said.

DeVoss said it’s unfair that Nebraskan students don’t have the same rights to publish as those in Colorado, Kansas and Iowa.

“What makes Nebraska kids less capable of reporting things that are true than the kids in three surrounding states?” DeVoss said.

Nineteen student journalists, media advisers and advocates each had three minutes to convey their testimony Friday afternoon. Many student journalists told lawmakers about their struggles with censorship when trying to publish newsworthy, but controversial stories.

Student Press Law Center Executive Director Hadar Harris traveled from Washington D.C. to Lincoln, Nebraska Friday to testify. LB 206 doesn’t give students free reign to publish whatever they want, Harris said, nor does it completely remove the ability of administrators to halt publication of libelous or defamatory content.

“It restores the Tinker standard of free speech, which famously noted, that the First Amendment does not end at the schoolhouse gates,” Harris said, referring to the Tinker v. Des Moines 1969 Supreme Court case that was the first to define students free speech rights.

Michael Kennedy, a journalism professor at Chadron (Neb.) State College and adviser to the student newspaper there, The Eagle, also testified in support of the bill Friday. He has testified in support of the bill in previous years as well. Kennedy is acting executive director of the Northern Plains College Media Association in Nebraska, and advocates for the New Voices bill solely in that capacity.

“I think we made an impact last year. Some people were not as informed perhaps of how much this means to so many different people. It means a lot,” Kennedy said.

Morfeld, a democrat, was formerly a freelance newspaper writer and started an alternative newspaper in high school. When he was threatened with expulsion for the newspaper’s content, he turned to the Student Press Law Center for resources and contacted the American Civil Liberties Union.

“So I had a personal experience with administrators going way too far and exercising authority that was unconstitutional,” Morfeld said.

Morfeld said he’s spoken frankly with school administrators about Nebraska’s new voices bill, saying constitutional rights are not intended to be convenient.

“If we’re truly preparing our young people for being good citizens, we need to give them the skills, responsibility, and sometimes consequences of exercising their First Amendment rights,” he said.

Justin Knight, a Nebraska attorney who usually represents school districts but said he was testifying in his own capacity was one of two who testified against the New Voices bill. Knight largely raised technical concerns with the bill language.

He asked for a clearer definition of what constitutes school sponsored media, and asked lawmakers to think about what an “unwarranted” invasion of privacy meant.

“I’m not sure of the distinction between and unwarranted and a warranted invasion of privacy,” Knight said.

Marion Miner, an associate director with the Nebraska Catholic Conference, raised concerns about state law infringing on the First Amendment rights of private religious schools.

“[The bill] would force private educational institutions to assist in the production and dissemination of speech to which they disagree,” Miner said.

After all those who wanted to testify did so (which took about 90 minutes) Morfeld closed the session and reiterated his support for the bill and the advocates, many of whom traveled long distances to speak to his committee.

Morfeld said school administrators have told him behind closed doors that they may simply shut down their school paper and the school’s journalism program should the bill pass.

“That’s really disconcerting and disappointing,” he said.

Morfeld suggested that such an extreme response in the event of  the bill’s passing may provoke lawmakers to make funding school papers a requirement should schools expect to receive state funding.

SPLC reporter Cory Dawson can be reached at cdawson@splc.org or at 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @Dawson_and_Co

Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our free occasional News Roundup.