By Makenna Mays
INDIANAPOLIS – When Southport High School senior Andrew Tapp was approached by his advisor to lobby for a student press freedoms bill last year, he did so without hesitation.
“I’m very fortunate at Southport not to face censorship from our administration, but I know plenty of students all across the state of Indiana who do face censorship,” Tapp said.
The bill developed with the student-powered New Voices Initiative, a nationwide campaign that works with advocates in law, education, journalism and civics to write legislation that protects student press freedoms.
There have been incidents across the state where school administrations have censored student publications and disciplined media advisers such as a current case at Plainfield High School. A media adviser is currently under fire for allowing her students to publish a dating guide that administrators deemed inappropriate.
“There’s nothing truly in Indiana code that protects First Amendment rights of student journalists and their advisers,” said Ryan Gunterman, executive director for the Indiana High School Press Association, which is housed at Franklin College, which also owns TheStatehouseFile.com.
This epidemic of censorship stems from a 1998 Supreme Court case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which ruled student’s First Amendment rights are not violated when school officials edit or prevent publication of material in school newspapers.
The first version of Indiana’s press freedom bill debuted in the 2017 legislative session. However, after passing the House education committee with only four opposing votes, it died on the Senate floor after last minute opposition from the Indiana Department of Education. A new version of the bill has been drafted for this legislative session, and contains more concise language, as well as defining what school activities are and listing what policies must include.
The Indiana Department of Education declined comment because officials have yet to see the latest version of the bill.
If the updated bill is passed, it would provide protections for student journalists to research and report about news in their schools, as decided by their advisors, but without interference from administration. It would also provide a safeguard for advisors protecting them from any retaliation from the administration for supporting the students’ right to report freely.
The Indiana School Principal Association is one of the organizations that took issue with the bill because they believed that the bill didn’t give principals any ability to edit, make any changes or offer any suggestions regarding school publications.
“We are not opposed to student journalism at all,” said Tim McRoberts, associate executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals. “We just want to make sure that administrators have a voice in that process because the administrators are the ones held accountable.”
However, for those supporting the bill, its importance extends beyond student journalism.
“This bill is trying to change what is normal in this state, where the First Amendment is normal, and censorship is not,” said Gunterman.
Tapp worked with legislators and other student journalists to draft the first version of the bill for the 2016 legislative session. He spent countless hours at the Statehouse lobbying for the bill and testifying before both the House and Senate education committees.
“It’s not necessarily fighting a battle for myself, but for those who can’t, the ones who are in schools that don’t have journalism programs because they were censored out of existence,” Tapp said.
Rep. Ed Clere, R-Albany, authored the bill and was adamant that student journalists should take a leading role in every part of the process. Last session, student journalists from all over Indiana participated in the process from bill drafting, introducing legislation and testimonies.
“This legislation has been and will continue to be student led,” Clere said.
Clere has a personal interest in this bill as he has a journalism background. He was a student journalist in high school when the Hazelwood case was decided.
In 1987, the principal at Hazelwood East High School in Missouri prohibited student journalists from publishing articles about teenage pregnancy and divorce on the grounds the that the subject was inappropriate.
The case was fought to the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled that the First Amendment rights of student journalists are not violated when school officials prevent the publication of certain articles in the school newspaper.
“When I joined the staff of my school newspaper, the shadow of Hazelwood had just fallen over student journalism, and nearly 30 years later, Hazelwood is still casting a shadow,” Clere said.
McRoberts, who was a high school principal for 10 years, said that not once in his time as a principal did he have to edit or censor any material published by students.
“We just felt that the Supreme Court decision is a good guideline landmark for administrators, and it does give the principal and administrator that ability to head something off if they think that it’s going to be an issue,” McRoberts said.
Clere said that this legislation would also be a teaching opportunity for journalism students.
“This legislation is more than just about student journalism, it’s about journalism education, civics education, fostering and promoting free speech and allowing and encouraging important discussions to go on in school communities,” Clere said.
He said that they tried from the beginning to reach out to school administrations, principals, superintendents and school boards to address their concerns about the bill and come up with acceptable language for the bill.
“Ultimately and belatedly, we realized they were unwilling to accept a meaningful bill,” Clere said.
During this process, McRoberts said that some changes were made to the bill by the Senate that would give the principal some authority if community standards were violated. However, when the bill went back to the House, it was changed back its original language.
Clere said that a lot of the opposition came from the schools’ wish to maintain total control, which he believes is not good for education or democracy. He insists that there are numerous checks and balances in place that would in no way give students free reign.
“I hope most administrators don’t think as poorly of their students as their lobbyists indicated,” Clere said.
McRoberts said that saying administrators want absolute power sells principals short.
“To say that I just want to maintain absolute power is an overstatement,” McRoberts said, saying administrators develop policies about student behavior whether it’s about cell phone use or dress code, and this is just a continuation of those policies.
Clere said that it is important to remember that schools are government entities.
“With any governmental entity, the government officials would love to decide what gets published or broadcast,” Clere said.
However, Clere said that these decisions should not be up to government officials, and student journalists in consultation with advisors and the administration will make responsible decisions.
As the new version of the bill moves forward, Gunterman said they will continue to contact legislators, bring awareness to the bill and speak with opponents to address their concerns but make sure that they are not sacrificing anything within the legislation.
“If we sacrifice any of that, and even like a little bit in terms of leaving it up to a certain administrator to decide whether or not to censor something they just don’t like, then there’s really no purpose of the bill,” Gunterman said.
McRoberts said that student journalism is important to them, but they just can’t relinquish the power of the principal to be involved in the publication process.
“We think that journalism is an important part of the school experience and we think it’s valuable,” McRoberts said. “We want to do whatever we can do to promote that.”
Meanwhile, Tapp is hoping for a better outcome this time around.
“For me, it would be a victory for the guys who are at these schools who are censored to high heavens and more than anyone should be,” Tapp said. “But it would be a victory for them and I just played a small part in getting a bill passed that would make their lives better.”
Makenna Mays is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.