Nebraska New Voices legislation not likely to pass in 2019, but there is optimism about the future

Photo by Julia Holmquist

March 26, 2019

A New Voices bill in Nebraska will likely not make it to the governor’s desk this year.

Advocates, and staff for Sen. Adam Morfeld who is sponsoring LB206, said the bill has successfully passed through legislative committees and is on the floor of the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature. But largely due to timing, the bill will probably not get through the required floor debates in 2019.

However, since Nebraska’s legislature works on a two-year lawmaking schedule, the measure will hold its position in line for debates over to the 2020 session and won’t have to go back through the committee process, which it successfully passed earlier this year.

“It’s in a really good spot,” said Julia Holmquist, a legislative aide for Morfeld.

Bills almost always have an analysis attached to them describing what the new law could cost, often called a fiscal note. The New Voices law had already been slated to cost nothing, and that determination was signed off on by a cadre of Nebraska educational groups like the Nebraska State College System and the University of Nebraska.

But amendments were added to the bill after the fiscal note was issued, which triggers another review, in turn slowing down the process, Holmquist said. The law is still expected to cost nothing.

Nebraska Senators all have the option of prioritizing one bill and bumping it up in the queue. Morfeld opted to promote a bill that provides stricter standards and more transparency around using jailed witnesses in prosecutions.  

Hillary DeVoss, a former media adviser in Nebraska who now resides  in Michigan, is among the volunteer leaders helping to organize students, journalism teachers and others support the Nebraska New Voices bill.

She wrote a message to supporters on the New Voices Nebraska Facebook page on April 23 after it became clear the bill would likely not pass this year.

“It was a huge moral victory, as far as getting out of the committee unanimously, but that’s all it was,” DeVoss said. “It feels really good because we’ve not gotten this far before, and we’ve struggled for years.”

DeVoss said that despite the bill not making it through, that hopefully the greater success sends the message to students that lawmakers believe them and do really want to help. But the sentiment doesn’t stop the censorship and retaliation Nebraska students and their advisers face like a law can, she said.

She is wary that influential opponents may appear later in the process and with more force.

The Nebraska Association of School Boards, Nebraska Association of School Administrators, Nebraska State College System and Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association have all sent lawmakers letters opposing the bill.

However, the 2019 session ends in June, and anything can happen, DeVoss said.

“Maybe some miracle will happen, I don’t know,” she said.

New Voices of Nebraska 2019 page here.

Feb. 22, 2019

UPDATE: Nebraska’s New Voices bill unanimously passes the legislature’s Judiciary Committee Friday, albeit with some changes.

Legislative Bill 206 was changed to remove a clause granting immunity to schools that may fear a lawsuit over what the school newspaper publishes. Sen. Adam Morfeld (D-District 46), the bill sponsor, wrote that the Judiciary committee chairman believed the clause was redundant and the issue was already covered under existing law.

The measure also allows administrators to intervene with a school newspaper if it violates “commonly accepted ethical journalistic standards.” Private schools are also no longer affected after the Nebraska Catholic Conference and others raised religious freedom concerns.

Now, the bill goes to the floor of the Nebraska Unicameral Legislature to be debated. The measure will wait in line behind other bills that have been recently voted out of committee for their chance to be debated — however, soon Nebraska Senators can pick a “priority” bill that can jump the line and be debated before others.

Bills go through three rounds of debate before they can be passed by the legislature and approved by the governor. Morfeld’s office said on Feb. 22 that he hasn’t yet decided which bill he’ll use his priority power on.

Feb. 3, 2019

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 (D-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

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