Lawmaker tries again to protect student journalists

Will the third time be the charm for legislation to protect the First Amendment rights of student journalists in Indiana? It’s a long shot, but we can hope.

Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, has again introduced a bill to prohibit school officials from censoring student publications produced under the guidance of teachers who serve as media advisers. The measure almost became law two years ago, but opponents managed to block it.

“It’s definitely an uphill battle this year, probably the most uphill it’s been in three years,” said Ryan Gunterman, executive director of the Indiana High School Press Association and a supporter of the bill.

The legislation, House Bill 1213, calls for school corporations and charter schools to adopt policies to protect the rights of student journalists. It says high school and middle school officials can’t block the production and distribution of student media unless it’s libelous, illegal or would disrupt school activity.

In 2017, the House voted overwhelmingly for a version of the bill, and the Senate Education and Career Development Committee approved it. But opposition started to build when the bill reached the Senate floor – stoked by school officials – and it wasn’t called for a vote.

Oddly enough, lawmakers got cold feet when news broke that student journalists in Kansas had raised legitimate questions about the qualifications of a new principal. This should have been Exhibit A for the value of real student journalism. Instead, legislators saw it as a reason to worry.

Last year, the House voted 47-46 for the bill, falling short of the 50 votes required to pass it. Many House members who voted for the bill in 2017 reversed course and voted against it.

The bill has been assigned to the House Education Committee. Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, who chairs the committee and supported the bill in the past, said he hasn’t decided whether to schedule it for a hearing.

Support last year came from student journalists at Plainfield High School, who said school officials began restricting what they could publish in a school news magazine after complaints about a fall 2017 issue that focused on dating and relationships. Last fall, Plainfield students said they were blocked from producing a story on rape culture after a student at the school was charged with raping two other students.

While the Plainfield incidents have generated news coverage, they’re far from the only examples of schools censoring student journalists. Gunterman said he received six calls last year about schools restricting what students could publish.

Journalism, as Finley Peter Dunne famously wrote, should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. This country needs good journalism now more than ever, and high school – and even middle school – isn’t too soon to start learning the skills and habits needed to produce it. Administrators who censor student media aren’t doing their students, schools or communities any favors.

Opposition to the legislation, Gunterman said, has come from associations of school boards, principals and superintendents, who believe they should have “complete control” over what students publish. Some have even argued that student publications should serve as public relations for schools.

News flash: Public relations isn’t journalism.

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