Principal testifies in favor of bill to protect students’ first amendment right

A proposed bill that would protect press freedom for student journalists has received the support of the Columbus North High School principal.

David Clark testified Thursday before the House Education Committee in favor of House Bill 1016, which would require administrators and student media advisers to set guidelines for student journalists and their publications.

It would mandate a student media adviser to supervise student journalists in grades 7 through 12 in creating certain school-sponsored media policies each school year, according to the legislation.

The bill proposed by State Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, passed out of the committee by a 9-2 vote and will go to the full House of Representatives for consideration.

“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.”

Dozens of students from Indiana high schools traveled to the Statehouse to hear and testify on the bill.

In his testimony, Clark advocated creating an environment in high schools in which student journalists can learn to be responsible by creating an environment of thoughtfulness and trust. He also advocated teaching students to think about the possible consequences of their work.

“I’m persuaded that this bill is an opportunity for us to say to our students, you have to be responsible in your work as a journalist,” Clark said. “You cannot create fake news or alternative facts. You cannot write to harm, defame or hurt.”

The bill wouldn’t affect Columbus North since the school already has policies in place ensuring that advisers work with students on editorial content, Clark said. The school also doesn’t require prior review of material that is to be published, with the exception of cases where content may be deemed hurtful or shameful to students, he said.

Clark said he wants students to learn from their experiences in making mistakes.

“I think that’s part of our job as an educational institution,” he said. “We can help them become better decision-makers.”

Journalism students at North review the work of their fellow colleagues, while student advisers Rachel McCarver and Roth Lovins also provide guidance concerning editorial content, Clark said.

“It’s about reporting the facts,” he said. “It’s written by students for students.”

Clark told lawmakers that all journalism students at North are required to take a course on ethics. He added that without providing a solid foundation on ethics, the school’s yearbook and student newspaper would most likely look significantly different.

“Our students are taught from day one to be insightful, not to incite,” he said.

He added that he is grateful that his students have the courage to step up and advocate strongly for a story.

“I’m proud that they have learned to work with student editors to make sure they inform without distorting,” Clark said.

The process at North differs from practices elsewhere, however.

Anu Nattam, editor-in-chief of Plainfield High School’s news magazine, told the House Education Committee 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.

Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, whose district includes part of Bartholomew County, told Nattam to be proud of defending her constitutional rights.

“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.”

However, Lisa Tanselle, general counsel for the Indiana School Boards Association, said 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.”

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.

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

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Matt Kent is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at 812-379-5712 or mkent@therepublic.com