Wrong end for journalist bill

South Bend Tribune

Some might look at what happened to House Bill 1130 and dismiss it as affecting “only” student publications.

That would be the wrong way to understand what the recent defeat of this bill in the Indiana Senate says about First Amendment rights — and how easily this basic principle can be defeated with a dose of fear and misinformation.

The bill, authored by Rep. Edward Clere, would uphold freedom of the press for student journalists. Clere, a Republican, intended to roll back restrictions imposed by the Hazelwood Supreme Court decision.

In that 1988 ruling, the court found that public high school and college newspapers are not normally protected from administrative censorship under the First Amendment.

Clere pointed out that his bill wouldn’t have allowed students to write just anything and everything.

He said that administrators will still have power to step in “if they review the publication and it’s inciting someone to break the law, or it’s obscene or libelous.”

Apparently, those reassurances weren’t enough to ease the concerns of principals, school boards and the state superintendent of public instruction, who have their own interpretation of the measure.

In speaking out against the bill, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick curiously raised the specter of the student journalists at Pittsburg High School in Kansas.

Curious, because that case actually bolsters the case for HB 1130: student reporters who set out to write a routine welcome-to-Pittsburg story, instead found accreditation and reputation issues with the university where the new principal earned her doctorate and master’s degrees.

Using simple online research techniques, they discovered that the school might be a diploma mill, was not accredited by a recognized accreditation agency and that the Better Business Bureau had warned about problems with the university.

After the story was published, the principal resigned from the $93,000-a-year job.

The school board, which admitted that its hiring process had failed, praised the six student journalists working on the school newspaper. In a statement, the board said it would review its screening procedures.

Referring to this story, however, McCormick, a former principal, cited it as evidence that HB 1130 would result in student journalists getting principals fired, according to Clere.

“We’re going to have to go back to a lot of senators, help them understand that they have been misled and provide them with correct information and the facts which support this legislation,” Clere said.

“There’s nothing here for anybody to be scared of.”

To be sure, if there’s anything to be afraid of, it’s the possibility that school officials, including the state’s top education official, will ignore the facts of HB 1130 and continue to be guided by unreasonable fears about a bill that protects their students’ First Amendment rights.

That would be quite an outrage. Unfortunately, it’s also just the sort of story that some would prefer to keep out of student newspapers.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.