MAUNETTE LOEKS: Celebrating our blessings

Maunette Loeks

After the Nebraska legislative session convenes each year, I like to keep an eye on the activity coming from Lincoln.

During the first 10 days of the session, Nebraska legislators present the bills they propose that the 49 Nebraska senators debate and ponder. Once again this year, the Nebraska Legislature will consider a bill, LB 206, designed to protect student journalists not only from libel, but also overzealous school administrators who censor their work.

I’ve asked this question before: How do you teach student journalists about free speech? Well, by letting them use it. Throughout the nation, and even in local classrooms, student journalists have experienced censorship.

Will a story that questions graduation requirements for students be censored because an administrator believes it will upset the school board? Is a cartoon simply deemed “offensive” by a school principal and not allowed in the school newspaper? Yes and yes.

How do I know? Well, those are just a couple of the times that the newspaper that I headed as a student editor on experienced censorship. That was in the early 1990s and I have a few other examples I could list. Through the years, student journalists have shared stories with me about censorship battles they have experienced. Over stories about holey jeans, for example.

Each year since 2016, our senators have considered bills that would protect student journalists from censorship battles with their school administrators. To his credit, Sen. Adam Morfield has proposed the most recent bill, as he did in 2017, 2018 and 2019. I wrote about former Sen. Al Davis proposing a similar bill during the 2016 legislative session in the Star-Herald.

We’re still discussing it, four years later, because our state senators have yet to adopt student protections. Most people don’t realize that high school and college newspapers are censored. They assume, as it should be, that students have First Amendment rights and are protected.

However, since 1988, when the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision in a case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, student journalists have been handling censorship issues. The Student Press Law Center has headed up an effort, the New Voices Movement, to try to get student protections passed in all 50 states. Currently, only 14 states have laws that protect student journalists. Student Press Freedom Day will be observed on Jan. 29, and highlight the New Voices Movement.

The New Voices USA Movement began in 2016 and was inspired by a North Dakota bill to offer stronger protections to high school and college students.

It’s easy to dismiss the work of student journalists, but across the country, student journalists are doing some awesome work. Taylor Blatchord of the Seattle Times writes a digital newsletter called “The Lead” that highlights student journalism. Stories cited by Blatchord have included exposure of the misuse of student raised funds by high school administrators, data breaches of student and parent information and stories addressing bullying and hazing.

The work often cited by Blatchord is not only work of which student journalists should be proud, but I as a journalist for more than 20 years would be proud of to have on my own resume. I’ve read stellar work from student journalists across the country since subscribing to this newsletter. For the second year, in December, Blatchord highlighted 100 pieces of great student journalism — amazing.

Also in 2019, the Pulitzer Prize Board recognized student journalists at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, for their work highlighting memorials of their classmates and school staff killed in the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting. Powerful journalism. The student journalists have tackled other difficult stories, including sexual assault and climate change.

I hope you’ll join me in asking our state senators to approve student protections this legislative session. If you’re in a neighboring state, check out your student journalist protections and how you can encourage your own state to pass similar legislation, if it hasn’t already. Nine states currently have active New Voices campaigns underway.

For more information about student censorship, visit the website of the SPLC and New Voices, http://www.splc.org/newvoices. The SPLC advocates for student First Amendment rights and a variety of information, including talking points on the New Voices Movement, is available.

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