Neb. student-speech act introduced

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

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Public school students in Nebraska would have enhanced free-speech protections if the Student Expression Act clears the Legislature.

Introduced Jan. 19 by state Sen. Ken Haar, the measure says ensuring students' free-speech protections would increase their appreciation and respect for the rights and values of a constitutional democracy.

Section 2 of the bill provides: “The Legislature finds that the State of Nebraska has an obligation to protect the First Amendment rights of public school students in order to instill in students the value of democracy and to prepare students for informed and active civic participation.”

The bill states that “student expression includes the rights of a student to: Express his or her thoughts and beliefs through speech and symbols; create, write, publish, perform, and disseminate his or her views; and assemble peaceably with other students on school property for the purpose of expressing opinions.”

The bill does limit student speech in that it says there is no protection for speech that is obscene or defamatory, that creates a substantial disruption in school, or that invades the privacy of others.

Measures like Nebraska's Student Expression Act are sometimes called anti-Hazelwood statutes, in reference to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. In that case, the Court ruled that public school officials have great authority to regulate student speech that is school-sponsored.

The Hazelwood decision has led to much censorship of student speech. As Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, wrote in an August 2010 column: “The way that federal courts have applied the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood standard to restrict First Amendment rights in public schools is straight out of the script of “The Blob,” and equally horrifying.”

Joey Senat, a student-rights expert who teaches media law at Oklahoma State University, says states need the type of law just introduced in Nebraska.

“Unfortunately, these state laws are needed in light of the Supreme Court’s treatment of high school students as second-class citizens under the First Amendment,” he said. “High school — not college — is the common experience for Americans. So high school should be where we learn to express our viewpoints and to at least consider — in a civil manner — those of others.”

“I applaud the intent of this statute,” Senat said. “I think it’s a good start. But I am concerned about its provision allowing for censorship.”

“My experience is that school officials don’t know what constitutes libel, an invasion of privacy or an obscenity,” he added.

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