By Emily Ketterer
Special to IHSPA
INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana student journalists will continue to wait for First Amendment protections after legislation securing those rights failed to be considered in 2019.
The bill was filed by Reps. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, and Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis, for a third year in the General Assembly but didn’t garner enough support to get a hearing in the House Education Committee during the first half of session.
House Bill 1213 would have granted student journalists in grades 7 to 12 the similar freedoms and protections as professionals under the First Amendment. According to the Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, there are certain circumstances in which student news organizations cannot freely publish materials if the school administration has “legitimate pedagogical concerns” about the work.
HB 1213 would have provided protection from such censorship, and 14 states have passed similar “New Voices” laws to nullify the effects of the Hazelwood ruling. In addition, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia have approved codes protecting students’ First Amendment freedoms.
In Indiana, the bill protecting student journalists was presented in 2017 and passed by the House 88-4. However, it didn’t make it out of the Senate after the Indiana Department of Education and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick spoke out against the student protections right before the vote. In 2018, a similar bill won 47-46 in the House but needed a constitutional majority of 51 votes to pass.
What differed in 2019 was the loss of support for the legislation among lawmakers, Clere said. He noted that although he knows those who support the bill, many switched their opinions as a result of the opposing groups.
“We’ve had a majority of support the last two years,” Clere said. “There are folks who voted for it in 2017 and voted against it in 2018 as a result of the misinformation and fear-mongering from the three administrative interest organizations.”
Clere made the decision to not push for the bill anymore this year because he felt the issue needed time to cool down after the opposing groups ramped up their lobbying efforts within the past year.
“I’ve come to the realization that it’s going to take more time,” Clere said. “I don’t want to force the issue this year and keep it from having a chance in the future … I don’t know if it would have passed out of committee again, but I think it would have encountered a lot of resistance on the House floor.”
Organizations lobbying against the bill are associations representing state superintendents, principals and school boards. The “fear-mongering” Clere cited includes concerns that if given press freedoms student journalists will promote drugs or sex in school-sponsored media.
Tim McRoberts, vice president of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said student journalism is great curriculum for schools, but the legislation undermines the authority of administrators when students report on controversial issues.
“We don’t oppose student journalism,” McRoberts said. “Our singular issue with this legislation is that it takes the administrator, the principal, out of the equation in regard to being able to have input.”
McRoberts said he knows there are important conversations that need to be addressed in school newspapers, and he doesn’t want to stop that, but not at the cost of the principal’s input on what is best and appropriate for the community.
Opposition in the House has been led by Reps. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, and Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville. Cook has been a principal and superintendent while McNamara is currently the director of Early College High School within the Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corporation.
Neither lawmaker read this year’s bill but said in the past that the legislation jeopardizes the corporation’s leadership and students’ safety. McNamara said students, particularly seventh graders, shouldn’t be treated as professionals yet because they don’t have the emotional ability to handle certain situations.
“It takes the principal out of the picture, and that’s never a good thing,” she added.
However, Ryan Gunterman, director of the Indiana High School Press Association, disputes McNamara’s claim. He said each version of the legislation included portions that included school administrators in the development of building-specific policies for student media, and that Clere authored an amendment in 2018 that required publications advisers to notify their principal of any content that could be deemed controversial prior its distribution.
As the director of the high school press association, Gunterman regularly deals with censorship issues from schools across the state. He said this law is needed, and the claims by those in opposition have been largely overblown and untrue.
“There’s never ever, ever, ever, been a case where students being given the rights of everyone else in American society … has ever led to disruption or harm,” Gunterman said. “(The opposition) can’t point to a single example.”
Language was added to the bill this year to hopefully balance both sides, Clere said. Under the HB 1213, administrators would be limited in what they can censor, unlike current practice where some believe they can remove material without giving a reason. Students would have the right to sue the school if they find the censorship to be unreasonable, he said, adding that he was not encouraging lawsuits. In fact, the legislation provides schools civil immunity from school-sponsored media produced by students.
Gunterman also referenced Sec. 17 of HB 1213, which states the protections for student journalists “may not be construed to prohibit a public school or school corporation from adopting a policy that requires review for compliance with this chapter before publication of school sponsored media.”
Yet in spite of these changes, they weren’t enough to gain momentum for another attempt to pass the law.
Taking time to re-evaluate is what the legislation needs, Gunterman said, and he doesn’t want the issue to go away entirely.
“If we continue to do the same thing over and over again, what do you expect?” Gunterman said. “Some of those bills that come up every single year and never ever have a chance of being heard or passed, I don’t want to be that. Like, ‘Oh, there’s the student journalism bill again.’”
Clere, a former journalist himself, said this bill is important for students to learn the practical application and responsibility of journalism. He plans to try again next year.
“We don’t keep student athletes contained in a classroom and simply show them diagrams of how the game is played,” Clere said. “We let them go out and play the game … so in the same way, there’s value in allowing and encouraging student journalists to do journalism.”
Emily Ketterer is a sophomore at Franklin College and paid freelance reporter for the Indiana High School Press Association.