Nebraska lawmakers consider student-expression bill

Friday, January 29, 1999

When students at Bellevue West High School in Bellevue, Neb., tried to run a two-page feature on alternative lifestyles last year, they received an unwelcome edit from their principal.

Wishing to avoid controversy, the principal pulled two articles from the package: one on two homosexual students at the school and another on Wicca, a nature-based religion popularly associated with witchcraft.

John Bender, a journalism professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, claimed the articles were accurate and quite mild. They were pulled because they might cause a stir, he said.

Bender said that the incident illustrates the extent to which Nebraska school officials have taken control of student publishing — far beyond that allowed in the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.

“These incidents of actual censorship or threatened censorship are not directed at student expressions that are defamatory, obscene or incitements to violence,” said Bender, who serves as executive director of the Nebraska High School Press Association. “What (school officials) are trying to censor is controversy — specifically, student expression on matters (the students) think are important but (which) might put school officials in a bad light or raise questions of concern.”

But a bill sponsored by state Sen. Chris Beutler of Lincoln would grant public school students in Nebraska the right “to express themselves freely in newspapers, yearbooks and other school publications.” Called the Student Freedom of Expression Act, the bill would limit what school officials may censor in student publications.

The bill would expand Nebraska students' rights beyond those in Hazelwood, which allowed school officials to monitor school-sponsored publications. Although the Hazelwood court granted school officials considerable power to regulate student publications, it required them to demonstrate strong educational reasons for doing so.

Bender contends that many Nebraska school officials haven't used “strong educational reasons” when they have censored publications, noting that some recent incidents border on the ridiculous.

One high school principal recently pulled a picture of happy students at a prom from a yearbook, claiming that the only way the students could be that happy was if they were drunk or on drugs. He also censored a picture of a girl kissing her boyfriend on the cheek.

Six states currently have laws on the books designed to bolster student expression, according to the Student Press Law Center based in Washington, D.C. California passed the first one in 1971. Massachusetts, Iowa, Colorado and Kansas all passed legislation soon after Hazelwood. Arkansas became the last state to adopt a student-expression law in 1994.

More than 20 other states have considered such legislation but haven't passed it.

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, says the Nebraska bill fits in with the standard set by the six states with student-expression laws and closely resembles bills offered recently in Michigan and Illinois.

Goodman says he hopes to see more efforts to assure students of their right to free expression.

“We see, on an ever-increasing basis, the need for students to communicate,” Goodman told said. “Laws such as these give them the ability to do so in an educational context. If schools are allowed to censor indiscriminately, students won't stay with those publications.”

The bill has appeared before the Nebraska Legislature on three previous occasions but has never come up for a vote. Although the Education Committee approved the bill last session, the approval came so late in the session that the Legislature didn't vote on it.

“This year, our hope has been that we would get an early hearing and that we would be able to get it out of committee quickly enough that the entire Legislature will act late this year or early next year,” Bender said.

Lawmakers began considering the bill last week. The Education Committee, which voted 5-3 in favor of the measure last year, may vote again next month.

During a committee hearing last week, several students and their newspaper advisers testified that school administrators shouldn't interfere with student publications as long as their reports are accurate and not obscene.

“We are not allowed to report the truth where it stands if the truth is not up to par with the administration's version,” said Allison Conway, a student journalist at Omaha Westside High School. “It is difficult to become moral and responsible journalists in that case.”

Brian Hale, a lobbyist for the Nebraska Association of School Boards, says his group favors keeping the power to monitor student publications with school administrators.

“We ought to maintain the responsibility … with the people who finance the newspaper,” Hale told the committee last week. “Freedom of the press is something we all honor, respect and hold dear. But freedom of the press really exists for the people who own the press.”

—The Associated Press contributed to this report.