Committee approves bill to protect student journalists’ rights
April 18, 2017
The Senate Education Committee last week recommended passage of a bill expanding and protecting the rights of K-12 and university student journalists to free speech.
Senate Bill 420 was introduced by Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, who said the current standard in Nevada essentially allows teachers and school administrators to censor student journalists from printing anything critical of the school or its administration.
She said her bill states that those free speech rights are protected, "unless they are libelous or creates a clear and present danger of substantial disruption." Cannizzaro said similar legislation has been passed in 10 other states and is being considered in several more.
"It's to protect from the feeling of being chilled when they want to publish something that might be critical of the administration or to talk about uncomfortable topics," she said.
The grassroots campaign called New Voices has been passed in 10 states and is receiving consideration in 18 more including Nevada. The aim of the New Voices is to bring student press protection.
Patrick File, a University of Nevada, Reno journalism professor who specializes in media law, said SB 420 empowers student media to be the responsible, accountable engine of engaged citizenship that it should be.
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"By encouraging students to research, report, verify, and discuss the issues that matter to them in an open, public forum, we encourage them to be more responsible, more media literate, and more civically engaged. Recent research supports this," he told the committee.
Furthermore, File expanded on his comments and said there must be more clarity for young journalists.
"For about 30 years, thanks to a U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Hazelwood, school administrators have been allowed to censor or discipline student journalists when they can assert a 'legitimate pedagogical purpose' for doing so," he said in his remarks. "Across the board, journalism education groups and the 10 states that have adopted their own standards since that decision agree that this standard lacks clarity and tends to undermine quality journalism education.
"Nevada students, their advisers, and even school administrators will tell you that we would benefit from a clearer standard which places editorial decisions in the hands of student editors."
That issue was raised by Churchill County High School student Lauren (McLean) Draper, then editor of The Greenwave Flash, and Lahontan Valley News General Manager/Editor Steve Ranson who became embroiled in a battle over an article she wrote in January 2010 for her paper in Fallon about students being withheld from a music competition she called "Choirgate." She said she felt afraid and that her rights were being "chilled."
Draper said many students and their media advisers aren't as lucky as she was to have support that allowed her article to be published; however, the teacher sued several parties including the LVN. Ranson said he and his newspaper backed her and that the case was ultimately dismissed. The longtime journalist and former high-school journalism teacher in the late 1980s/early 1990s said several professional journalism organizations support SB 420.
"As the immediate past president of the Nevada Press Association and incoming president of the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors, I am here in an official capacity to inform this committee that these two organizations support SB 420," he said. "The NPA supports a free press and a student journalist's right to publish an article that is factual and responsible without fear of censorship."
Through a series of articles, columns and editorials, Ranson said the LVN supported both the First Amendment right of McLean to exercise her right as a student journalist and the Churchill County School District — to include former Superintendent Carolyn Ross and high-school principal Kevin Lords — for their unwavering support despite the threat of a lawsuit or grievance from the teachers' association.
Reno High School student Taylor Pittman said it's important to be able to discuss controversial issues and not be censored, issues such as terrorism, racism and police brutality.
"The voices of students should not be silenced, they should be encouraged," she said.
But Sen. Scott Hammond, one of three lawmakers who ultimately voted against the bill, said he was concerned the measure would create an exemption to a teacher's right to shut down protest and control the classroom. Hammond is a teacher.
"There is a reason why we have limited certain rights to students in school," he said. "You do not have the right to say certain things."
SB420 was approved 5-3 with Hammond and fellow Republicans Don Gustavson and Becky Harris opposed. The measure will see some potential amendments including one to ensure that not only Nevada school districts but the university