Neb. legislator reintroduces student speech bill

New language addresses opponent concerns

NEBRASKA — A modified bill aimed at statewide protection for student freedom of speech has been reintroduced in the Nebraska legislature.

Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm, Neb., introduced the Student Expression Act, or LB582, on Jan. 19. He said the bill acknowledges the allowances the Supreme Court has given school districts to limit rights, but he wants to encourage schools to adopt their own policy.

The bill provides that, “The right of students to free expression in all public schools in Nebraska shall not be abridged except as provided in the Student Expression Act.”

It would give students the rights to assemble peacefully on school property, as well as create, write, publish, perform, express and distribute thoughts or beliefs. Censorship would only be permitted when student expression is obscene, defamatory, invades privacy or presents a substantial disruption to the school.

Haar introduced a similar student expression bill in the 2010 session, but it failed to pass through the Education Committee. The new bill doesn’t require that school districts adopt a student expression policy; instead, they are encouraged to do so.

Another section of the previous bill, which said “no public school employee or administrator shall be fired, transferred, reassigned, or removed” for protecting student free speech rights, has also been removed.

Tom Green, legislative aide to Haar, said the Nebraska State Education Association felt teachers were already covered under their collective bargaining agreement.

He also said the language was simplified to ease the concerns raised by opponents of the previous bill.

“[School districts] wouldn’t have to change their policies,” he said. “They were concerned about the cost of publishing and updating their policy with short notice ... but of course they’d have to follow state law so it really wasn’t as important to have the policy.”

Green said students and teachers would have their freedom of expression protected under state statute, whether the school district has a policy or not.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said he’s glad to see Nebraska moving in this direction and extremely appreciative that Haar is taking on something for which there is no lobby and no special-interest support.

“The bill might benefit from some clarification so that everyone understands that the right is mandatory and is not a matter of district option,” he said. “The language as it’s written now might give the impression that a district can opt-out of protecting student speech by policy and that can’t be what was intended. It’s really going to be a matter of somebody bringing a test case to seeing if it has real teeth or not.”

Haar said there have been cases in Nebraska in which students have been told certain topics, such as teenage pregnancy or racial issues within a school, are off limits for student publications because they might put the school in a bad light.

“The ultimate goal is to affirm that just because they’re students doesn’t mean they don’t have First Amendment rights,” Haar said. “I think the worst lesson that we can teach the kids is that somebody can just step in and say, ‘Whoops, you shouldn’t have done that,’ or ‘You can’t be critical.’”

Michael S. Dulaney, executive director of the Nebraska Council of School Administrators, said school administrators are concerned with protecting the interests and security of all students, as well as the safe operation of their districts.

“The problem, of course, especially in this day and age with cyberbullying being such a prevalent issue, is whether a student would be offended by the free expression of another student,” he said. “That’s a very delicate line to walk. Most school administrators are thinking it’s in their best interests and the best interest of the students to have some limitation on that.”

He said the organization doesn’t necessarily believe that the state needs to make schools adopt a policy, because they have that prerogative right now.

“We certainly appreciate the fact that this particular version of his bill is more palatable to school districts than previous attempts that required such a policy to be adopted,” Dulaney said.

The bill will have a public hearing March 8, which is required of every bill introduced in the unicameral legislature. Seven states have free expression statutes protecting high school students and student journalists.

“One of the fears from adults is that they’re not going to be able to control young people,” Haar said. “That comes from school board members, it comes from administrators, it comes from teachers, it comes from parents. I don’t believe that’s the way you teach democracy.”

Calls to the Nebraska State Education Association were not returned as of press time.

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