Nevada legislation looks to protect student journalists

legislature-1To respond to the current political climate that has been dominated by accusations of “fake news” toward truthful and accurate news stories and threats to members of the press from politicians and government officials, lawmakers in Carson City will be given the opportunity to clarify the rights of student journalists.

Senate Bill 420, sponsored by Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro, would require the board of trustees of every school district in Nevada to adopt a written policy that relates to the right of expression for students working as journalists on student publications. The bill also authorizes the Board of Regents of the University of Nevada to adopt a similar written policy for university student publications.

“What it would do is to clarify student journalist rights at the high school and university level,” said Patrick File, Media Law professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and coordinator of SB 420. “The main point of this is to set a clear and even standard that is protective of student free speech rights in a way that we argue is conducive to civics education and engaged citizenship, in addition to learning about it is what we think it important particularly at the high school level.”

File said the bill would clarify to public schools that the best practice is to only punish and censor student media when the school can show that there is going to be material and substantial disruption at the school.

Frank LoMonte, executive director at the Student Press Law Center in Washington D.C. testified in favor of the bill at the Senate Committee on Education meeting earlier this month, saying the legal protections for student journalists are “imbalanced” and “widely recognized as inadequate for the effective teaching of sound journalistic values and practices.”

LoMonte cited the Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier as the case that removed all federal protection of the rights of student journalists.

“After nearly 30 years of experience under Hazelwood, every leading authority in the field of journalism education – both educators and professional practitioners alike – agrees that the right amount of press freedom in educational institutions cannot be ‘zero,’” LoMonte said in his written testimony for the bill.

Currently, 10 states have laws similar to SB 420 with the goal to protect the ability of student journalists to publish the lawful and non-disruptive content they wish to.

Lauren Draper, a recent graduate of Churchill County High School, testified in favor of SB 420 because of a situation where she experienced punishment for a story she had written in her school newspaper.

“After I sought and reported the truth about choir students’ audition tapes being withheld from a statewide competition, I found myself frightened and confused about whether I had made the right decision in writing the article,” Draper wrote in her testimony for the bill. “I followed the code of ethics and made no libelous claims, yet I felt guilty and ashamed of reporting the truth. I was shamed by teachers I had respected and was called a “zealous child” by the co-chair of the Churchill County Educators Association.”

Draper said she would have been more comfortable and less fearful in the situation if SB 420 had been in place.

The Churchill County School District eventually upheld the First Amendment in Draper’s case and allowed her article to be published.

File said a big issue targeted by the bill is self-censorship that often stems from the lack of clarity student journalists have. He said that self-censorship in high school leads to self-censorship at the university level and onward.

SB 420 was passed in the Senate Committee on Education with only three senators voting not to pass it.

Sen. Scott Hammond, R- Las Vegas, was one of the committee members who voted against the bill. His concern was that the clarification would take control away from teachers to censor student media.

File said his response was that the bill is simply aimed at clarifying the policy for everybody.

The bill has the support of the State Education Association. The Washoe and Clark County School Districts are neutral toward it and want to keep communicating as the bill moves forward.

Today is the deadline for all bills, unless exempted, to get to the Senate Floor Meeting and pass. From there the bill would most likely go to the Assembly Committee on Education and then, if passed, to the Assembly Floor Meeting.

File said the biggest challenges to the bill are time and attrition. Many bills in the legislature simply fall off the radar if they are not important to the Legislative leadership.

“We can’t wait until 2019 to try this, which is when the next opportunity in Nevada would be,” File said.

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