Press freedom bill for student journalists advances

By Erica Irish
TheStatehouseFile.com

 INDIANAPOLIS — Anu Nattam, editor-in-chief of Plainfield High School’s news magazine, told the House Education Committee Thursday that her staff, for the first time in 20 years, is facing censorship by the school’s administration.

After publishing the first issue of the year, “Plainfield High School’s Dating Survival Guide,” Nattam said there was immediate and unexpected negativity from school leaders.

The current name of the publication — The Shakeout — was not chosen by the staff. After their first issue in October, their principal noted that its original name — The Shakedown — had mafia connotations. He soon ordered them to find a new title.

Plainfield High School student, Anu Nattam testifies in favor of HB 1016. Photo by Claire Castillo TheStatehouseFile.com

“So far, they’ve made pretty minor changes,” Nattam said. “But it’s going to be like a snowball effect. If they’re changing this now, what are they going to change later?”

Though Nattam does not plan on becoming a professional journalist, she said her work still deserves necessary freedom to capture the truth in student life.

That is why she and dozens of students from Indiana high schools traveled to the Statehouse Thursday to hear and testify on House Bill 1016, authored by Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany.

HB 1016, which passed out of the committee by a 9-2 vote, would require administrators and student media advisers to set guidelines for student journalists and their publications.

“This legislation leaves school officials with a high level of control. School officials hire the teachers and make the rules,” Clere said. “All this does is help ensure when students and teachers play by the rules, important speech will not be censored just because it makes government officials uncomfortable because of the information or topics presented.”

Clere said student journalists have a special importance to a school community in that they can capture the truth in the experiences of their peers.

In The Shakeout‘s first issue, Nattam said some of these important issues included LGBTQ+ interests, dating violence and how to find a lasting relationship.

“There was really nothing unlawful in that issue,” Nattam said. “But, because a school board member felt uncomfortable about it, now we are under prior review and have to show everything we publish to administrators, people who have no experience in journalism.”

Plainfield Community Schools declined to comment on Nattam’s testimony.

Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, told Nattam to be proud of defending her constitutional rights.

Rep. Edward Clere, R-New Albany, listens to testimony on House Bill 1016, which he authored. Photo by Eddie Drews, TheStatehouseFile.com

“I take it the reason you’re up here is because you’re upset your constitutional rights are being infringed,” Lucas said. “It’s good to see you and so many people up here fighting for your constitutional rights.”

Dr. J.T. Coopman, executive director of the Indiana Association of Public Schools, offered a different perspective.

“School-sponsored publications are a public relations tool, but without the guidance and oversight from the administration, a school-sponsored publication can become a public relations nightmare,” Coopman said.

Lisa Tanselle, general counsel for the Indiana School Boards Association, echoed claims made by other organizations, saying a student’s rights should be limited because there are “alternative avenues” for voicing concerns to an administration, such as through social media.

“We are talking about a balancing act,” Tanselle said. “No right is pure. The court has already struck that balance between the right of a student and the right of a school administrator.”

Of the school representatives who testified, some said there is a harmonious relationship between administrators and student media in their schools.

David Clark, principal of Columbus North High School, said journalism programs can only thrive with a trusting administration.

“Everyone believes that students should be responsible, so let’s create an environment where they can learn to do just that. Shouldn’t we proactively educate by creating an environment of thoughtfulness and trust? It works,” he said.

Students of Plainfield High School students are among the many who turned out for HB 1016. Photo by Claire Castillo TheStatehouseFile.com

Though only two members voted against HB 1016, several who voted yes raised concerns.

Rep. Sheila Klinker, D-Lafayette and Rep. Jack Jordan, R-Bremen, both said they wanted to see more clarification in the bill’s language. Klinker proposed amending the bill to gain more support from administrators currently in opposition of HB 1016.

Rep. Woody Burton, R-Whiteland, and Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, voted no.

While Cook voted yes on last year’s version of the bill, he changed his vote this session after saying HB 1016 does not do enough to unite administrators and student media.

Last session, the bill’s predecessor passed in both the House Education Committee and in the House. It later died in the Senate.

Clere said that HB 1016 is especially relevant this session. The Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision turns 30 this month, signaling a decades-long run for the landmark case that put high school journalism under a different set of rules.

For Clere, the consequences of the Hazelwood decision deprive student journalists of a rigorous, real-world environment.

“The stronger the censorship, the weaker the education,” Clere said.

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

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