Department of Education explains concerns about student journalists bill

By Katie Stancombe
TheStatehouseFile.com  

Editor’s note: TheStatehouseFile.com is a publication of the Pulliam School of Journalism at Franklin College. The Indiana High School Press Association, which lobbied in support for House Bill 1130, is headquartered at Franklin College.

INDIANAPOLIS – The Indiana Department of Education is sharing its concerns about a failed House bill that would have protected free speech rights for high school journalists.

House Bill 1130 would have prohibited public schools and school corporations from disciplining student journalists for exercising freedom of speech and press in school-sponsored media. However, the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Brandt Hershman, R-Buck Creek, decided not to call the bill for a vote before the full Senate after learning about the department’s stance.

The DOE said they had concerns about language in the bill that was changed. At one point the bill said protections would not have been offered if school administrators could prove the content to be “lewd, vulgar, profane, or violating community standards,” but that was replaced with only “gratuitously profane.”

“We felt that was problematic for schools,” said Adam Baker, a DOE spokesman.

Specifically, school administrators wanted to keep the language “community standards.” However, the definition of community standards varies depending on the specific community, said Diana Hadley, executive director of the Indiana High School Press Association.

“You might as well not have a bill, if you put that in there,” Hadley said. “‘Community standards’ are like giving an administrator a blanket to say, ‘I don’t want you to write about this.’”

Author of the bill, Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, agreed, arguing that including community standards in the bill would allow school administrators and others to maintain absolute control over student speech.

“This idea of community standards is simply an attempt to water down the bill and make it effectively meaningless, because they want to be able to define what community standards are in a way that is convenient and nonthreatening for them,” he said.

Clere is frustrated that the DOE waited until the last minute to vocalize their concerns.

“They had more than three months from the time the bill was filed to express those concerns, and they never did,” Clere said. “And in fact, the bill passed the House with the wording that they’re now apparently concerned about.”

Hadley said the DOE didn’t play a fair game, but there is still a chance for student journalist protections to be saved. She hopes to explain the bill’s importance to Superintendent of Public Instruction Jennifer McCormick on the chance the language could be added into another education bill working its way through the Statehouse.

Both Hadley and Clere plan to meet with McCormick within the next week.

Katie Stancombe is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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