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New Voices bill passes its first test

Atley Weems, Steve Ranson and Taylor Pittman testify before the Senate Education Committee on Thursday in Carson City.

At the end of the day, Senate Bill 420, which is the Nevada version of New Voices legislation, was recommended for approval on Thursday by the Senate Committee on Education, the first step toward giving more protection to the rights of student journalists.

Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro

The bill is sponsored by Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas, and has been shepherded by Patrick File, a journalism professor at the University of Nevada-Reno, and Stephen Bates, a journalism professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

The committee vote was 4-3, along partisan lines, after Republicans raised several questions that appeared to reflect a misunderstanding of how the bill works.

It took until the day before a legislative deadline for SB420 to get a hearing, and testimony started at 5:05 p.m. after committee members pushed through votes on a dozen other bills.

But when they finally got to New Voices, Reno students Atley Weems and Taylor Pittman, as well as former Fallon student Lauren Draper, presented compelling testimony in favor of the bill.

“The reason why students deserve their full rights to free speech is simple,” Pittman testified. “They are the next generation, the ones who will be running the world for decades to come.”

The written testimony from Atley, Taylor and the rest is available at the Legislature’s NELIS site.

Lauren talked briefly about her experience as a high-school journalist at The Flash in Fallon when, in 2010, the teachers union fought publication of her story on “Choirgate,” about the withholding of audition tapes from statewide competition.

“Less than six months from graduating Churchill County High School, I found myself terrified,” she told legislators. “After I sought and reported the truth about choir students’ audition tapes  being withheld from a statewide competition, I found myself frightened and confused about whether I had made the right decision in writing the article. I followed the code of ethics and made no libelous claims, yet I felt guilty and ashamed of reporting the truth. I was shamed by teachers I had respected and was called a ‘zealous child’ by the co-chair of the Churchill County Educators Association.”

Steve Ranson, editor of the Lahontan Valley News who printed Lauren’s story at the time and defended her against the teachers union, also testified in support of the bill on behalf of the Nevada Press Association and the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors.

Christy Briggs, adviser at Reno High School and certified as a master journalism educator, spoke about the importance of being able to teach students their constitutional rights.

All their testimony was cut short as the committee hurried to conclude for the day, but not before considerable discussion about the standards being set by SB420.

The legislation, in essence, would restrict school boards from prohibiting publication of content in student newspapers unless the content would “substantially disrupt” educational activities. That’s a higher standard than exists under a 1988 Supreme Court decision, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which allowed censorship if the content was “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

As witnesses have testified around the country, the Hazelwood ruling has allowed schools to chill student expression in instances where a story in the student newspaper might make the principal look bad, or might raise uncomfortable — although legitimate — issues. The original case was over stories about divorce and teen pregnancy.

Republican members of the committee raised concerns that the bill would create a double standard for schools — some speech, such as gang-related ballcaps or bullying, would be handled one way, while the student newspaper would be handled another. But File and Cannizzaro explained that the bill actually would help clarify school policy to make it more consistent, not less.

All three Republicans voted against the bill, but the Democratic majority on the panel prevailed. The language of the bill still needs to be confirmed before it can move to a full vote of the Senate and, if approved, moves to the Assembly for consideration.

Also supporting the bill were the ACLU of Nevada and the Nevada State Education Association.

At the end of Patrick File’s testimony, he told a terrific story that deserves to be quoted here:

Finally, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to end with a story. You might know that Earl Wooster was a celebrated Nevada educator: a high school principal in Dayton, Wells, Winnemucca, and at Reno High; Washoe County Schools’ first superintendent; and executive secretary of the Ne vada State Educational Association from 1959 to 1965.

Earl grew up in California, and in 1915 was about to graduate from Fresno High School. In the spring of his senior year, he gave a speech expressing concerns about the lack of emergency exits in the school assembly hall, which he said was a safety risk. The school board, angry about the public denunciation, refused to award him his diploma unless he retracted the speech. Earl refused, saying that he had spoken the truth. In fact he sued the school, saying they had violated his free speech rights, making him one of the first students to bring such a lawsuit. In 1915, the federal courts had not yet ruled that the First Amendment applied to state and local governments through the 14th Amendment, so Earl lost his suit, and had to go back and beg the school district for his diploma so he could pursue his career in education at the University of Nevada.

Recently, a student in one of my classes told me when he was a senior in high school he was stopped from publishing a story about his school’s policies of locking outside doors while also shortening the time students had to pass between classes. He said his reporting raised some safety concerns about the policy, and he was told he couldn’t pursue it.

That student was a proud graduate of Earl Wooster High School, in Reno.

It seems like it’s high time to encourage, rather than discourage, inquisitive, active, responsible, and accountable student journalists in Nevada.

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