Student journalists learn hard legislative lesson

This should be a success story about students who worked on legislation passed to protect student journalists.

It should be, but right now it isn’t.

Several of Indiana’s high school and college student journalists, publications advisers and directors of Indiana’s press associations have worked with Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, to dial back strong censorship practices some school administrators have incorporated since the 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision.

Twelve states have statutes that returned student press freedom to a Tinker v. Des Moines standard, and 18 others are working on legislation.

As the bill was drafted, proponents invited the bill’s stakeholders to meet with the group to discuss objectives.

J.T. Coopman, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public School Superintendents, declined the invitation in an email to Clere:

“Where in the world did this idea come from and who thought it was good idea? We have case after case that affords school administration the proper authority to determine appropriate content for yearbooks, newspapers and speech issues in schools and this bill removes it all. Naturally, we cannot ignore precedent setting cases that support proper authority that school corporations throughout America fought hard to ensure.”

The “idea” came from the First Amendment. The curt refusal to speak to students about an issue important to them is an example of Hazelwood’s authoritarian leadership approach.

Executive directors of the Indiana School Boards Association and the Indiana Association of School Principals attended that meeting and discussed the bill.

Other students met for a workshop to learn how a bill becomes a law and how to research and report about legislation.

After House Bill 1130 was born, some students contacted their legislators to promote the bill; others wrote about the process.

The bill was granted a House Education Committee hearing. Six high school and college journalists, publications advisers and directors of the professional and student press associations testified in support of the bill. The House Education Committee passed the bill 13-0. The full House passed it 88-4.

The Senate Education and Career Development Committee granted HB 1130 a hearing. Students met with the committee chair to explain the bill and contacted senators to seek support.

More than 250 students gathered at the Indiana Statehouse March 14 for the annual IHSPA First Amendment Symposium to promote their #BeHeard campaign.

Those in support of HB 1130 for a senate hearing the next day waited 5½ hours to speak to a committee missing several members who had other commitments by 7 p.m. Those who testified were limited to three minutes instead of the promised five-minute testimony. Speakers frantically cut paragraphs from their prepared remarks.

Before the bill reached a vote, school administrators influenced an amendment that neutralized it. The bill passed, 10-0, but it was damaged.

A counter amendment helped the bill return to its original intent. It advanced to third reading.

However, just as HB 1130 was minutes from success, proponents heard the bill was “in trouble.” In explanation, one senator said he couldn’t support a bill school administrators and the Department of Education were against. None of the bill’s proponents had known the Department of Education opposed the bill.

Uncertain of support, the bill’s sponsor didn’t call for a vote, a strategy that would let the bill die but have the language remain for a final effort.

Since the DOE had not voiced concern in the three months prior to third reading, and the superintendent of public instruction had not attended any of the hearings (even though she testified for another bill the day HB 1130 was heard), the bill’s supporters had no opportunity to address her concerns.

That’s when the students’ lesson in government turned from a positive lesson about the power of ordinary citizens to influence change to a lesson that it’s possible to work hard and with integrity and still be outmaneuvered by those in power who don’t mind cutting ethical corners.

HB 1130 met an unfortunate end. Its language still could be saved, but success is a remote possibility unless other citizens join the effort.

Those who want to help students pass this legislation are encouraged to follow the story on Facebook’s New Voices of Indiana and contact state senators with support.

Diana Hadley is the executive director of the Indiana High School Press Association. Send comments to dr-editorial@greenfieldreporter.com.