During the 2017 Legislature, lawmakers in bipartisan fashion from both the Nevada Assembly and Senate passed Senate Bill 420. This New Voices legislation, which has been passed and adopted in more than one dozen states including Nevada, provides relief from one of the worst decisions the U.S. Supreme Court made against Freedom of the Press and First-Amendment rights.
In the Jan. 13, 1988, U.S. Supreme Court decision of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, school administrators gained the right to remove news they consider unacceptable. In its ruling, SCOTUS said students’ First Amendment rights were not being violated because a school newspaper is a learning tool.
Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier weakened a decision rendered in the late 1960s regarding student rights. In Tinker v. Des Moines, SCOTUS ruled 7-2 that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”
In essence two opinions contradicted each other.
With New Voices now part of Nevada law to shield student journalists from unnecessary censorship, the Washoe County School District, however, is thumbing its nose at the new law by proposing to regulate yearbooks, which according to the district’s policy coordinator, are not protected. Either Lisa Scurry is misguided or lacks basic knowledge of the print world, but her assumption that a yearbook doesn’t come under the new law is very erroneous and misguided.
According to the Reno Gazette-Journal, “Scurry told the board that she’d worked with district legal staff to conclude that the content of yearbooks could be dictated by the district.”
State Senator Nicole Cannizzaro of Las Vegas, who works for the Clark County District Attorney’s office, and Dr. Patrick File, an expert in media law at the University of Nevada, Reno, dedicated hours to crafting a bill that would eliminate the censor-happy heavy hands of school administrators to remove material they deemed unacceptable but not disruptive. Likewise, the senior legal consultant for the Student Law Press Center in Washington, D.C., Mike Hiestand, weighed in and called WCSD’s decision to control a yearbook’s content as “absolutely ridiculous … Yearbook is every bit as much a journalistic enterprise as a student newspaper or other student media.”
Both the Nevada Press Association and the International Society of Weekly Newspapers, which includes every nondaily newspaper in Nevada as members, supported SB 420 but do not support WCSD in its current move to “control” yearbooks.
I would guarantee the legal expertise shown by Cannizzaro, File and Hiestand and the press associations on this matter far outshines that of Scurry and the Washoe County School District’s legal team. Based on previous history, the ACLU and SPLC could challenge this decision, if passed, and tie up the school district in court, costing taxpayers thousands of dollars.
Furthermore, school district representatives from both Clark and Washoe counties offered their support for SB 420 in testimony given before the Assembly’s and Senate’s education committee. Why is WCSD acting hypocritically almost eight months after Gov. Brian Sandoval signed New Voices into law? As part of the team to introduce the New Voices legislation, I question WCSD’s transparency in trying to circumvent the law to their own liking and twisting it to Big Brother control.
Chapter 3 of Nevada Revised Statue 388.077 delineates the responsibility of school districts:
“Section 1 of this bill requires the board of trustees of each school district, the governing body of each charter school and the governing body of each university school for profoundly gifted pupils to adopt a written policy for pupil publications which: (1) establishes reasonable provisions governing the time, place and manner for the distribution of those publications; (2) protects the right of expression for pupils working on those publications as journalists; (3) prohibits restrictions on the publication of any content in a pupil publication unless the content would substantially disrupt the performance of the school’s educational mission.”
Scurry and WCSD appear to be confused on a yearbook’s intent to chronicle information like a newspaper, which is leading to a WCSD decision to remove club sports that are not sanctioned by the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association. This would involve sports such as rodeo, archery and lacrosse, which has more than 600 WCSD participating. If this isn’t censorship, WCSD, what is? Yet, yearbooks at many Nevada high schools outside Washoe County feature non-NIAA sports in their pages.
Again, the RGJ quotes Scurry: “That Senate bill, the way we interpreted it … was more for journalistic enterprises like school newspaper or things that students are publishing versus a yearbook, which is really — to my understanding anyway — outlined by the school.”
Scurry, though, has terribly misinterpreted the intent of SB 420. WCSD trustees can put an end to this charade and resolve this ignorance by doing the following:
Drop the notion that a yearbook is not a student publication … it is;
Save the district unnecessary expenditure on legal bills and court costs;
Support student-journalists’ First Amendment rights;
Offer remedial classes in linguistics and comprehension to anyone in the WCSD who struggles with specific wording of the Nevada law governing student journalists and their rights.
There’s a reason for New Voices legislation: Scurry and the WCSD legal team’s intent to censor yearbooks just proved why the law was passed in 2017.
Steve Ranson is LVN’s Editor Emeritus, past president of the Nevada Press Association and current president of the International Society of Weekly Newspapers. He is also a Reno High School graduate.