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2/12/2018 11:21:00 AM
COMMENTARY: Indiana legislators don't trust student journalists with First Amendment

Bob Zaltsberg, Herald-Times Editor

The Indiana House of Representatives once again has dealt a blow to student press freedom. It failed to pass a bill that would have given Indiana middle school and high school student journalists First Amendment rights.

The synopsis in House Bill 1016 was pretty simple. The bill “Provides freedom of speech and freedom of press protections for grades 7 through 12 and state educational institution student journalists. Requires each school corporation and charter school to adopt a policy concerning student journalist protections.” It would have required a student media adviser to supervise student journalists and prohibited a public school or school corporation from suppressing “school-sponsored media” unless certain conditions were in place. Those conditions included, for instance, libel or slander, violations of state or federal law or content that “materially and substantially” disrupts the operation of the public school.

The bill was voted on Feb. 5 and did not receive the constitutional majority of 51 votes in the 100-person House to pass. It failed 47-46 with seven representatives not voting.

Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, was the only one of five representatives who represent Monroe County who voted for the bill, and thus First Amendment rights for students. Republicans Jeff Ellington (Bloomington), Bob Heaton (Terre Haute), Peggy Mayfield (Martinsville) and Chris May (Bedford) voted against it.

Opponents of the bill took the side of school administrators who want to maintain power and control rather than trusting teachers to teach, students to learn and both to act responsibly.

One argument against the bill was that young people don’t deserve full constitutional rights because “they lack the basic brain development that they need,” as Rep. Wendy McNamara, R-Evansville, said.

It’s true that brain scientists say “they” don’t have full brain development until age 25. Yet we allow them, at age 16, to drive 2- to 4-ton vehicles 70 mph on busy highways; and we give them weapons and send them into war at age 18.

Another of the arguments, made by Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, was that the law wasn’t needed because most school administrators and their student publications have good relationships. That’s like saying the state shouldn’t have public access laws because most public officials provide ready access to public information. If some of the others who spend taxpayers’ money or pass regulations or make laws don’t want you to know what they are doing, so what? If a few school administrators want only happy journalism practiced in their schools, so what?

In his testimony before the Indiana House Education Committee on Jan. 25, Ryan Gunterman advocated for passage of the bill. He’s the executive director of the Indiana High School Press Association, and a former teacher and journalism adviser at Bloomington High School North.

Besides real censorship, Gunterman said student journalists were shying away from topics of importance to their peers because of the threat of being shut down by administrators. He talked about how students must choose between “their freedoms (of the press) or the betterment of their community.”

Student journalists from around the state responded to a question he sent out about topics they “do not feel comfortable addressing due to a climate of suppression.” The answers were “bullying of students with special needs; persecution of Christians and keeping a Christian mindset as a teen; eating disorders; mental illness; lead in school water; signs of abuse and how to report it to school officials; suicide prevention; equality; and hazing.”

He told the committee those responses made three things clear to him:

“1) There are life-altering, and even life-threatening, topics that are being ignored out of fear of reprisal.

“2.) Our students want to address what truly matters and are not interested in covering topics simply for their shock value.

“3.) Even in schools where journalists are supported, students are self-censoring due to fear of punishment either to themselves or their adviser.”

Gunterman summarized very well that House Bill 1016 wasn’t just some attempt for students to gain some power they could abuse. It was an effort by dedicated young people to be able to tackle serious topics about which their peers needed more information.

The committee passed the bill 9-2.

Eleven days later, the full House rejected the committee’s strong support for student journalists and their teachers. Not enough House members trusted them with words and thoughts as much as society trusts them with cars and weapons.

Related Stories:
• Indiana student journalism bill fails in General Assembly for second year in a row
• Hoosier student journalism bill fails 47-46 in Indiana House
• COMMENTARY: Function of media remains to hold government accountable
• Elementary school newspaper inspires young Dubois County journalists
• Indiana student journalists speak out on press freedom before legislative committee

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