INDIANAPOLIS — For the second year in a row, student media in middle and high schools were denied widely accepted freedom of press protections by the Indiana General Assembly.
House Bill 1016, which would have revised parts of the state’s education code, would have made guidelines for students and school staff to follow regarding content and prior review of articles and content published by students in grades 7 through 12. New Voices USA, an organization lobbying for student press freedoms, was behind the bill, sponsored by state Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany. It failed to pass the Indiana House of Representatives on Monday. The House voted 47 to 46 in favor, but the bill needed 51 votes to pass.
The bill required content to be chosen by students, and not used as advertising or representing the school corporation. It also set grounds for content to not be libelous, violate federal or state laws or entice students to commit crimes or disrupt school. It also explicitly gave schools permission to enforce prior review policies, meaning an adviser (such as a principal or teacher) could read and approve content prior to publishing.
A similar bill was debated last year and passed the House, but was not brought up in the Senate.
Rep. Chris May, R-Bedford, voted against the bill. Rep. Steven Davisson, R-Salem, voted in favor.
The focus on student press legislation comes from multiple cases across the nation regarding school newspapers not being allowed to publish content if administrators do not approve, and would not have to be based on being libelous or incorrect. In 1987, students in a journalism class at a Missouri high school sued after administrators wouldn’t allow the students to publish two stories, one on divorce and one on teenage pregnancy, fearing that it wouldn’t be good for the school’s reputation. The Supreme Court ruled that the school principal prohibiting the articles he thought were inappropriate did not violate the students’ First Amendment rights.
Similar legislation for student journalists has been implemented in 13 states.
“It’s just disappointing. 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.” Ryan Gunterman, executive director of the Indiana High School Press Association and former journalism educator at Orleans Junior Senior High School, said in a press release with the Student Press Law Center.
Errin Layer, adviser to Bedford North Lawrence High School’s yearbook, asked her students Tuesday what they thought about the rejection of the legislation.
“The education system is supposed to teach us to be confident young adults and inspire us to grow and learn,” senior Raigan Harper said. “How can we do that if we can’t communicate and speak our opinions?”
Heather Nichols, student media adviser at Paoli High School, serves as a member of the IHSPA Board of Directors, who advocated for the legislation.
“I feel that before kids can understand the value of a media class, they need to see how that class fits into the larger narrative of the First Amendment,” she said. “Everyone should know their rights, and I really believe the New Voices initiative works to support those freedoms for students.”
Nichols also advocates for editorial protections for students as a means of professional development. She argues students who take journalism classes learn communication, research and problem-solving skills, as well as how to meet deadlines and work in teams. Legislation would have supported that model of learning employable skills, she said.
At Paoli, Nichols said she has never been completely barred from running content that administrators did not approve of.
“I have had administrators who are concerned about how we cover a topic, but they’ve never truly said no,” Nichols said, adding that she has not felt like her students were never able to write the stories they wanted to. “We have always found a balance between what we want to write and what will make our community engaged in the topic, and I feel that we have done a pretty good job of that.”
Nichols said she thinks the freedom she and her students have with their content is not common across the state, however, which is why the legislation would be necessary.
“There are administrators throughout the state who do not always see the value in student journalism, and they have lots of reasons to feel that way, but it boils down to whether or not you have faith and confidence in your teachers and in your students’ ability to follow good journalistic principles and produce quality work,” she said.
Lane Hewitt, journalism teacher at Mitchell High School, said he already reviews students’ work before it is sent to publish, and that he consults MHS principal Sean Vandeventer when necessary.
Hewitt said he was not sure how the legislation would have changed his program, because his students haven’t reported on anything particularly controversial, but thought it would have been good insurance in case they did.
“If I did feel strongly that the students’ education would be best served by reporting on a sensitive issue, it would be comforting to know that they enjoyed the same protection as professional journalists,” he said.