Nebraska must pass LB88, and Omaha Public Schools should be supporting it

Anne Rogers, Photographer

A bill within the Nebraska legislature has the potential to halt the censorship of all student journalists in the state of Nebraska. 

LB88 was introduced to the Nebraska legislature on January 7 by Senator Adam Morfeld to protect student journalists and student media advisers. This bill was also designated Morfeld’s priority bill on March 11. If passed, this bill would designate school sponsored media as public forums and ensure that every student journalist has “a right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media,” with exceptions if the speech is libelous, slanderous, or violates journalistic ethical standards. 

The most powerful section of the bill is the clause that designates school sponsored media as public forums. When a student publication is declared a public forum, student editors are given the power to make their own content decisions. This means that a student cannot be censored by their administration when they are following all ethical and legal standards. 

This is beneficial to everyone, as student journalists would not need to worry about whether or not their work would be approved by their administration, and the administration within schools and the district would not be held accountable for a student’s work if a student published something problematic. 

Furthermore, LB88 would protect Nebraskan student journalists and their advisers from retaliation for any of the students’ work. The bill specifically prohibits a student being disciplined for their work when they are adhering to the journalistic ethical standards set by the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, and it protects a student’s adviser from being “dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against” for defending a student’s right to free speech. 

Bills advocating for student journalism continue to gain popularity and are being considered in states across the U.S. such as Hawaii, Kentucky, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, and Texas. Many of these bills are collectively known as New Voices legislation. 

According to the Student Press Law Center, New Voices legislation is a “student-powered nonpartisan grassroots movement of state-based activists who seek to protect student press freedom with state laws.” Fourteen states have passed New Voices Legislation, and many of these laws have been in place for decades. 

For example, California passed its Student Free Expression law (a law that provides protections similar to LB88) in 1977, 44 years ago. However, eight of these states passed these laws within the last decade, and seven additional states, including Nebraska, have introduced bills. 

If this bill were to be passed into law in Nebraska, the change would be monumental. Nebraska alone has had many incidences with censorship, with one of the most recent cases occurring just this year at Westside High School that culminated in the resignation of an advisor. 

According to Abby Schreiber, a member of the editorial board at Westside’s journalism department, at the beginning of the school year, Westside’s administration announced to their journalism department that they would be implementing prior review, meaning that student journalists were required to send all of their work to their superintendent before it could be published. 

The school board’s policy had not changed, but the decision to enforce it was new. The student journalists and advisors at Westside objected to this change, but they were unable to affect the school board’s decision. This led to tension and conflict between Westside’s administration and journalism department, according to Schreiber. 

LB88 would help to release these tensions at not just Westside, but any school in Nebraska where the relationship between the administration and the journalism department is strained. By allowing student journalists to control what they publish and removing the liability from the administration, conflicts about a student’s First Amendment right or the administration’s right to control a publication would be eliminated. 

Shortly after encountering resistance, Westside’s superintendent Mike Lucas responded by sending an email to the students, parents and staff at Westside. The email stated that the district’s policy on prior review had not changed but neglected to mention that it had only recently been enforced. The email also focused primarily on why school-sponsored media needs oversight, according to Schreiber. 

“The thing is, we’ve always had oversight,” said Schreiber. “We’ve always had all of our stories get reviewed by student editors and our advisors before publishing. Nothing goes unauthorized, and we have our own editorial policy to make sure we put out good content, but the school is just completely ignoring that.” 

The same is true for journalism departments at nearly every school in the United States. Stories are peer-reviewed, reviewed by student editors, and reviewed by journalism advisers before being published to ensure that they adhere to all ethical standards.  

Westside’s editorial board decided to write an editorial in response to Lucas’ email. However, despite being professionally and ethically written, Westside’s administration did not allow the editorial to be published. This censorship prompted the resignation of one of their advisers. 

This situation never would have occurred had a bill like LB88 been passed earlier. LB88 would prohibit all prior review, and it would empower students to write controversial stories like the editorial written by Westside without fear of censorship. 

“If LB88 passed, it’d be great, we wouldn’t have to struggle with self-censorship anymore or any kind of review from administration and we could just work as we always have,” Schreiber said. 

LB88 has support from students in OPS as well. When the bill was being debated in 2019, students from Omaha North’s journalism department planned a day dedicated to calling senators in support of LB88. 

However, despite the effects of censorship on student journalists and the student support of LB88, President of the Omaha Public Schools School Board Shavonna Holman wrote an email to Nebraska Senator Lathrop on behalf of OPS stating that she was in opposition to LB88. 

In her email to Lathrop, the primary concern Holman expressed was that designating student media a “public forum,” as LB88 does, would require student media to include contributions from any member of the public, even if they were unaffiliated with the school. However, this is simply untrue. 

First, the term “public forum” is commonly used in New Voices legislation without ever seeing this complication arise. For example, the Colorado Free Expression Law designates student media a public forum as well, and that law has remained in place since 1990 without this problem ever occurring. Furthermore, the Student Press Law Center describes a public forum for student expression as “when school officials have given student editors the authority to make their own content decisions,” meaning that student editors retain control over the content of their publication. 

Additionally, LB88 further clarifies that school-sponsored media is material that is “prepared, substantially written, published, or broadcasted by a student journalist,” and defines a student journalist as a student at a public high school or a postsecondary educational institution, not any member of the public. 

“All of their fears about us becoming public forums, they aren’t real, they aren’t actually going to happen, they’re just ways of censoring us,” said Schreiber. 

All members of the public should feel empowered to point out legitimate problems with all legislation if they feel that they could be potentially harmful. However, when arguments like this are used to advocate against bills like LB88, they can be incredibly misleading.  

When asked to elaborate on her stance, Holman stated that as student media was school sponsored, the OPS School Board retained the authority to control the content of said media. 

“That is not a reflection of the student journalist. That is not a reflection of the student media advisor. It reflects our belief of what it means to be school sponsored,” said Holman. 

However, despite Holman’s argument that as a student journalist’s work should be a reflection of the district, LB88 clearly states that “no publication or other expression of matter by a student journalist. . .shall be deemed to be an expression of a public high school’s policy,” meaning that if the bill were to be enacted, the district, School Board, and school administrators would not be held accountable for the views expressed by student journalists. 

“We have been operating our student journalism programs largely the same way for nearly fifty years now with few problems. It was the introduction of LB88 and its predecessor LB206 that seeks to change longstanding student journalism practices. We simply don’t see a need for it,” said  Holman. 

However, oppressing the freedom of speech of student journalists cannot be justified by arguing that it has always been done. LB88 and LB206 do seek to “change longstanding journalism practices,” but by improving them through the freedom and empowerment of students. Policies like prior review prioritize a district’s image over the education of students, and they need to end. 

Empowering student journalists is essential to upholding our first amendment right to freedom of press. Student journalism offers unique insight into issues and stories that matter to young people, and it acts as a platform for news that is local to a specific school or community to be shared. 

“I see [student journalism] as an opportunity to see what students are thinking, worrying, enjoying, and writing about,” said Michelle Porter, a curriculum specialist at Omaha North High. 

Passing LB88 is a critical step in ensuring that student journalists in Nebraska have a right to exercise their freedom of speech. Designating school-sponsored media as public forums would guarantee that the work of student journalists would be free from prior review and censorship, which would help to eliminate self-censorship as well. It is time for Nebraska to pass into law the New Voices Legislation that many states already have in place and for Nebraskan student journalists to have their rights cemented in Nebraska’s legislation.