Student journalists protection bill passes committee unanimously

By Katie Stancombe
TheStatehouseFile.com

 INDIANAPOLIS – If a bill that would protect student journalists and their media advisors from censorship by school administrators had been in law 13 years ago, one Hoosier teacher might not have lost his job.

Chad Tuley served as the student newspaper advisor for the Franklin Central High School student paper in 2003, but was suspended and involuntarily transferred after giving his students permission to publish an article about a classmate convicted of murder.

“The principal got wind of what we were doing and sent me an email basically saying that the student had a sister still at the school, and that his mom was a bus driver at the school corporation,” Tuley said. “He mentioned something about privacy laws and that basically said, ‘I think you should research this a bit.’ And so I did.”

Hoosier journalism students from across the state attended the first hearing for House Bill 1130 Tuesday. The legislation would provide protections to student journalists and their media advisors from administrative censorship. Photo by Katie Stancombe, TheStatehouseFile.com.

The bill, which passed the Education Committee Thursday with a unanimous 13-0 vote, would protect student expression in school media and publications, including student newspapers, radio and yearbooks.

Tuley did look into the privacy laws at the time and then advised his student reporters to just write the bare facts of the case, but school administration pushed back once the article was printed.

“Afterwards the principal said he had directed me not to print it and that I defied an order and was insubordinate,” Tuley said. “I got suspended, then it was this whole huge fiasco.”

Following his transfer, Tuley sued Franklin Township School Corporation, but settled with the understanding that he would not return or teach at any Franklin Township schools. Today, he teaches media at Scecina Memorial High School in Indianapolis.

Under House Bill 1130, public schools and public school corporations would not be allowed to discipline student journalists for exercising freedom of speech and freedom of press in school sponsored media.

The bill would also protect student media advisors, like Tuley, from unfair suspension, discipline, reassignment or transfer for protecting their student’s first amendment rights.

Tuley said he hopes this law will provide more comfort to student media advisors when they are pressured by school administration.

Diana Hadley, executive director of the Indiana High School Press Association, proudly wears a button proclaiming her support for HB 1130, the bill that would provide journalism students protections from school censorship. Photo by Katie Stancombe, TheStatehouseFile.com.

“If you’re scared doing your job, then I feel like you’re not really giving the students the freedom they need to report on legitimate stories,” he said. “So if you’re shying away from legitimate stories for fear of backlash, then that’s not true journalism.”

Those in opposition of the bill argue that school administrators should have the final say about what content is printed in a school-sponsored publication.

Lisa Tanselle, general counsel with the Indiana School Boards Association, said she is opposed to the bill because she thinks schools should have the right to ensure that published content is consistent with the mission, values and policies of their school corporation.

“Students have free speech rights,” Tanselle said. “They have First Amendment rights, but when it comes to something that says, this is a publication of this particular high school, we feel like we should have the final say as to the content.”

School principals make up the majority of calls she receives and most of those complaints are about Facebook and other social media, but not school sponsored publications. Tanselle said she hasn’t received complaints about content published in school newspapers in several years.

Author of the bill, Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, said he’d like to think that this would be common sense legislation, but expects a lot of pushback from school officials.

“It’s about control. They want to maintain their absolute control and I understand that, but its not good for journalism students,” Clere said. “Or other students or the entire school community.”

Brian Smith, executive director of the Indiana School Board Association, said he is uncomfortable with the bills significant forfeiture of administrative foresight of school paper content.

“The reasons available to the school corporation for suppressing content are very narrow,” Smith said. “For instance would not allow a principal to suppress speech that is lewd, vulgar, profane, offensive or contrary to the mores of the community.”

Steve Key, executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association criticized the motives of some administrators, saying that they have “gone beyond the educational reasons to step in, that their decisions have been more based on what their own impressions are what a school publication should be.”

Key also argued that the bill would create a clearer line for both students and administrators to follow.

“This narrows it down and says, these are legitimate reasons where the superintendents can step in and should step in,” he said.

The bill is not the first of its kind to try and pass through Indiana legislature. In 1991, similar legislation passed through the House but died in the Senate.

Clere said he hopes the bill, which now moves to the full House for consideration, will become law this year.

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

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