Free speech vital for youth

A bill being considered by the Nebraska Legislature Judiciary Committee, LB88, seeks to protect free speech rights of student journalists and student media advisers.

Currently, it is up to individual school districts how much autonomy student publications and their advisers have in reporting and in providing editorial comment. Many districts have policies that allow principals to review material before it’s published.

The bill, introduced by state Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, originally was proposed in 2018. But it has enhanced relevance this year because of a situation at Westside High School in Omaha. The school previously didn’t have prior review of its student publications’ content, but last summer the administration set a policy requiring that student content regarding anything controversial, such as defunding the police, the presidential election and race relations, be submitted to the administration for review before publication. Student journalists were asked to “exercise caution” in how they select topics and write articles and commentary.

A Westside journalism teacher, Jerred Zegelis, has resigned because of this action. He had been teaching there and advising student publications for almost eight years and during that time, his students consistently have won state and national journalism awards. They won the Class A Team Sweepstakes in the state journalism competition in 2019 and 2020 and also have won Sweepstakes awards in the Nebraska Press Women High School Communications Contest.

Morfeld’s bill would classify public high school and college publications as “public forums,” enhancing their First Amendment protections. Current school district policies, such as Westside’s, state that student publications aren’t public forums, so they would be nullified if Morfeld’s bill is passed and signed into law.

The bill wouldn’t say anything goes with student journalism. There are limits to free speech. Students would need to adhere to journalistic ethical standards, as they should be taught to do anyway, and they would not be protected if they published libelous or slanderous content, invaded someone’s privacy or violated federal or state laws.

But if the school has a good journalism teacher as the adviser, all of that review should be done anyway, just as the editor of a professional publication ensures that its staff members don’t break these standards.

“If we’re engaging in censorship and prior review unnecessarily, then we’re really discouraging an entire generation of future journalists from even being a part of the process,” Morfeld told the Omaha World-Herald recently.

Will Eikenbary, a Westside student who helps oversee the school’s student publications, testified before the Legislature Judiciary Committee in favor of the bill.

Eikenbary said since the school’s policy was instituted, students have been dismissing ideas for stories, thinking even a particular topic wouldn’t make it through a review, no matter how they wrote the article.

“It stifles creativity,” he said.

The Judiciary Committee should advance Morfeld’s bill to the floor for full consideration by the Legislature. Don’t quash free speech before it’s given full consideration.

* Grand Island Independent, Nebraska


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