Student free expression bill introduced in Neb.

NEBRASKA -- Legislation proposing a statewide student freedom of expression act in Nebraska is up for public hearing next Tuesday.

The bill, LB 898, titled the Student Expression Act, was introduced by Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm, Nebraska and would prevent schools from restricting speech unless it is defamatory, obscene, or otherwise unprotected by the First Amendment.

"Our bill would require each school district to have a written policy that explicitly says what they can [do] and will not be allowed to do," said Haar.

The bill would also provide protection for teachers, advisers and administrators against retaliation in their pursuit of academic freedom for students. The bill also clarifies that schools and school personnel are not liable for what students say or write.

Dr. John Bender, executive director of Nebraska High School Press Association said that a bill of this nature is necessary to protect teachers and advisers. "These are often people who are doing the best job...they're trying to teach students to do good, solid, responsible journalism. That's too often what principals and superintendents don't want they want public relations," he said.

"There's a lot of schools, particularly in the Omaha and Lincoln area, that this bill will have huge ramifications for because... every issue and every yearbook spread is scrutinized by administration," said Janelle Schultz, president of the Nebraska High School Press Association.

There have been 25 reported incidents of suppressing student expression in Nebraska since 1998, according to a compilation of incidents from Sen. Haar's office.

Last October, at Bellevue East High School, a district superintendent changed not only his answers to student newspaper staff questions, but also changed their questions to him, before allowing publication of the article in the student newspaper. In the same month, a co-editor of the newspaper wrote an editorial encouraging students to attend local school board meetings. The high school principal said the article was "inappropriate" and was pulled from the newspaper. The principal told the students they should be attending student council meetings rather than school board meetings.

In August 2008, a total of 23 students were suspended over a 3-day period for wearing memorial T-shirts dedicated to a friend who had been murdered by gunfire.

According to the bill, The intent of the Student Expression Act is to "clarify the expression of rights of Nebraska public school students, to reduce incidents where students' lawful expression rights are suppressed, to instill in students the value of democracy, and to prepare students for informed and active civic participation."

"We feel that if schools have reasonable policies in place it may actually prevent some lawsuits," said Haar.

There are currently eight states with student free expression laws and two others with state regulations in place.

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