Taking a stand for LB88: Why this bill is important in protecting our student journalism


Photo by Julia Ehlers

LB88 is a very important bill to the Oracle, as it promotes and protects freedom of the press for student journalists.

Under the first amendment, we all, even as students, have the right to freedom of speech, right? And all journalists have the right to freedom of the press, right? Wrong. Under current Nebraska law, student journalists do not count as ‘journalists’ and therefore do not get the same protections as our professional counterparts. Legally, we can be censored, and our articles can be changed in whatever ways administrators or those in the District Office see fit, regardless of the quality or content of the articles we write.
Nebraska State Senator Adam Morfeld’s Legislative Bill 88 (LB88) is setting about to change that. It was advanced into the second stage of debate on Monday, March 22, increasing the chances that it will be passed without amendments. This bill is an extremely important piece of legislation for student journalism across Nebraska, as it gives student journalists and their advisors the right to freedom of the press in ways that currently are not protected by Nebraska law.
LB88 is a bill that would allow student journalists and student media advisers the ability to publish freely without the fear of censorship by school administrators or school districts. In other words, it extends the freedoms of speech and the press that professional journalists have to student journalists and the media advisers that oversee school newspapers.
Currently, administrators have the ability to prevent us from publishing stories they do not approve of online, even if they are well-written stories that follow the journalistic Code of Ethics. Media advisers are also vulnerable to consequences for what gets published based on others’ opinions of an article, even if an article itself is factual. While the Oracle is lucky to have a trusting administration that supports our student journalism, prior review has been used before to check over all of our articles before publishing in the past, and we are not the only ones. School newspapers at North Platte High School and Omaha Westside have been censored in the past year for pieces they have written, despite their intent and the quality of their writing.
However, this proposal is not meant to give student journalists and their advisors free reign to publish whatever they want in a school newspaper. It makes the same sorts of exemptions as the freedom of the press portion of the First Amendment does – no slanderous or libelous content (slander and libel are when something said or published is intentionally false and meant to be harmful to a person or organization) is protected, nor is anything that “constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy,” breaks any state or federal law or incites any sort of clear and present danger. It also clarifies that anything published by a student newspaper is not to “be deemed to be an expression of a postsecondary educational institution’s policy.”
One of the bill’s opponents, Senator Steve Erdman of District 47, voted against LB88 for a number of reasons, which he describes on his website, one of which is that the bill changes school newspapers into public forums. It is his belief that “…by making this most important fundamental change, the door to free speech is flung wide open. This makes the high school newspaper no different than Facebook or Twitter, where students can say anything they want.”
He continues, “High school students are just that – they are students, not journalists. In order to become a morally responsible journalist, they must be taught, and that process usually begins in high school. LB88 would effectively turn the tables on educators, making it impossible for them to teach what good journalism looks like.”
However, according to Senator Adam Morfeld, the bill is intended to create a more open learning environment for student journalists. “The protection of student journalists’ rights in our K-12 schools and state institutions of higher education is critical in the development of current and future civic leaders,” Morfeld said on the debate floor. “Students, at an early age, must understand the power and the consequences of the First Amendment in an environment supervised by an instructor and with appropriate boundaries.” After all, how can you learn if you have to fear making any mistakes?
In fact, according to District 19’s Senator Michael Flood, it’s better that this learning happens in a school building. “What I see here is the learning that comes from students being empowered with the same rights that they have in society and doing it under the roof of the schoolhouse,” he said. “Yes, it’s uncomfortable — and yes, it is not pragmatic or what an administrator wants to wake up and deal with — but a student asking questions … they are learning, and they go on to do great things in life because they question.”
In the light of some of its recent opposition, and as student journalists on the Oracle Staff, we believe that it’s important to stand up for this bill, as it protects the rights to freedom of speech and the press for student journalists and their advisors. Journalism is an integral part of our culture – it is what allows us to protect our democracy, and the death of journalism allows corruption to grow within our government. Without that watchdog function of both local and national news, the ideals of what our country has stood for since 1776 would fail. What better way to stand up for this than by protecting journalism at its roots – in the high school students writing about the events in our communities for small school newspapers?
For more information and updates on LB88’s standing in the state legislature, check out these sources:
The Student Press Law Center: ‘New Voices in Nebraska’
The Unicameral Update: ‘Student journalist, advisor free speech protections advance after cloture
Nebraska Legislature: ‘LB88 – Protect free speech rights of student journalists and student media advisers’
For more information about the specific legislative process LB88 is going though, click here.
For more information about instances where students were censored, check out these sources:
The Student Press Law Center: Nebraska high school censors student editorial about censorship, and journalism adviser resigns
The Student Press Law Center: Nebraska high school journalist refuses to back down, publishes her censored article on Confederate flags and racism at school in local paper