States consider bills to guard students who report threats from libel lawsuits

Nev. governor signs statute; Calif. legislation in Senate

Two Western states are moving to encourage students to report\nthreats of school violence by shielding them from defamation laws.

Nevada lawmakers adopted a plan in June to give immunity from\nlibel laws to those who report a threat to a school official or\npotential victim in "good faith." Legislators in California\nare considering a similar plan.

The legislation, signed by Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn on June\n8, applies to any person with information about a threat against\na student or school employee. However, it is not clear whether\nstudent or professional media outlets would be protected from\nsuits if they reported a warning of violence to their audience.

The sponsor of the bill, state Sen. Valerie Wiener, D-Las Vegas,\nsaid the proposal is an effort "to create a good faith opportunity\nfor people to come forward" and report threats without having\nto fear lawsuits from the people they accuse.

Most troubling, Wiener said, is a defamation suit against the\nfamily of a California teen who told school officials that a classmate\nsaid he wanted to "kill people." Although a judge dismissed\nthe suit, the family now owes almost $40,000 in legal fees incurred\ndefending itself against the student's claim that his reputation\nwas damaged by the report of the threat.

Proponents of the Nevada bill cite a U.S. Secret Service study\nthat found in 75 percent of recent school shootings, perpetrators\ntold other students or adults about their plans before the attack.

In California, a similar bill was proposed by Assemblywoman\nCharlene Zettel, who represents Santee-the site of a recent school\nshooting where two students were killed after a 15-year-old opened\nfire in a bathroom.

In that case, the suspect reportedly told several classmates\nand an adult that he was going to bring a gun to school, but apparently\nthe warnings were not passed on to school officials.

The California bill, AB 1717, passed the state's lower chamber\nby a vote of 72-0 and awaits consideration in the Senate.

Fall 2001, reports