Student journalists testify in favor of bill that would give student publications greater freedom

Student journalists testify in favor of bill that would give student publications greater freedom
World-Herald News Service

Nebraska high school journalists are well aware that the stories they write must be acceptable to their school administrators.

“It’s not about whether it’s accurate,” said Gracia Lantis, an editor of North Platte High School’s newspaper. “It’s about whether or not the story is good for my school’s image. Knowing that schools are supposed to teach democracy and civics, this makes no sense to me.”

Lantis and other students, along with journalism teachers, testified Friday before the Nebraska Legislature in favor of a measure introduced by State Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln.

Legislative Bill 206 would establish greater independence for high school and college newspapers from their schools’ administrations.

Lantis said she was worried that printing the truth could mean the end of the newspaper or could cost her teacher her job.

“Speaking today makes me nervous for my job security,” said Lori Larson, the North Platte High School journalism teacher.

“I do not want to dumb down the curriculum just to make everything look great,” she said.

The bill would protect journalism teachers and students from punishment if they refuse to curtail student speech in the media at the wishes of school administrators. It also protects school districts from being held responsible in any civil or criminal case regarding the published work of a student journalist.

Under the bill, students would not have the right to publish material that is libelous or slanderous; constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy; violates federal or state law; or “so incites students” as to create a dangerous situation, violate policies of the institution or substantially disrupt the institution’s operation.

Specific accusations were made against many more high school administrations, current and former, in more than an hour of testimony in favor of the bill.

Those schools include Omaha Burke, Millard West, Bellevue East, Gretna, Benson and Hastings.

“(Censorship) is rampant across the state,” said Angela Wolfe, a Nebraska High School Press Association board member.

She said most of the emails she gets from high school journalism advisers are questions about how to handle censorship by administrators.

LB 206 deems school-sponsored media to be public forums.

Similar legislation has been passed in 14 states, including Iowa, Kansas and Colorado, according to the Student Press Law Center.

The bill aims to provide a legislative fix to legal precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier in 1988.

In its decision in that case, the Supreme Court essentially gave school districts the final say, writing that schools have the right to prevent publication of stories they find to be inappropriate.

The court said the student newspaper was not intended to be a public forum.

Proponents of LB 206 argued that young journalists should be taught to speak truth to power, not that it’s OK to censor.

“They come back (after being censored), and they don’t have the fire, and they’re scared,” Wolfe said.

Wednesday was Student Press Freedom Day, as declared by the Student Press Law Center. Student newspapers across the country published editorials recognizing the day, including the Daily Nebraskan at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The bill drew opposition from an attorney over wording in the bill and from the Nebraska Catholic Conference, which wants private institutions to be exempt from the bill. It drew letters of opposition from the Nebraska State College System, the Nebraska Association of School Boards, the Nebraska Council of School Administrators and the Nebraska Rural Community Schools Association.

The Nebraska State Education Association, Media of Nebraska, the Nebraska Broadcasters Association and the ACLU of Nebraska supported the measure.

Morfeld also introduced the bill last year, but it never advanced from the Judiciary Committee, the same panel that heard the bill Friday.

Bill would let Nebraskans make decisions about their mental health care in advance

LINCOLN — Nebraskans now have a couple of legal options to determine the treatment they want — or don’t want — when they can’t speak for themselves.

They can make out a living will or name someone as their health care power of attorney, giving them the ability to make decisions about their care.

On Friday, lawmakers considered a new kind of legal document, one aimed at allowing people with mental illnesses to spell out what treatment they want if they become too sick to make competent decisions.

State Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln said the documents, called advance mental health care directives, can increase patient choice and self-determination. They also can help people avoid involuntary commitment or jail.

“Fundamentally, this is about giving individuals choices and options to take care of themselves when they are sick,” she told members of the Judiciary Committee.

Bolz, who introduced Legislative Bill 247, said advance mental health care directives, also called psychiatric advance directives, were first introduced in the 1980s and are legally recognized in 30 states.

She offered an example of a person diagnosed with depression who periodically goes through times when the illness worsens.

From past experience, the person may know that he or she refuses medications during those times. He or she also may know that certain types of medications do not work or have intolerable side effects.

Through an advance mental health care directive, the person could instruct health care professionals to give him or her medications and could let them know which ones should be avoided. The person could also designate someone to make treatment decisions during those extreme downtimes.

“This is a proactive set of directions,” Bolz said.

The idea won support from NAMI Nebraska, a group supporting families and friends of people with mental illness; Community Alliance, which provides services for people with mental illness; and the Douglas and Lancaster County Boards.

Jacob Dahlke, the ethics director at Nebraska Medicine, also backed the bill. He compared the idea to “The Odyssey,” the epic poem in which Ulysses orders his men to tie him to the mast of his ship and put beeswax in their ears so they would ignore his pleas while sailing past the island of the Sirens, whose song reputedly lured men to their death.

But Brad Meurrens of Disability Rights Nebraska argued against the bill. He said the measure was confusing and did not include enough treatment alternatives.

He raised concerns in particular about when people would be allowed to change their minds about treatment. LB 247 allows for self-binding directives, under which refusal of treatment would be considered evidence that the person should get treatment.

Meurrens urged lawmakers to take more time to study and involve more people who have been through the mental health system in improving the bill.

“We would like to see psychiatric advance directives in place in Nebraska,” he said. “We just believe that this bill is not the vehicle at this time and issues need to be addressed in a broader discussion with a wider array of stakeholders.”