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Student journalism advocates to continue to fight for Indiana press freedoms



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House Bill 1016 was not passed after a final vote of 47-46 on Monday in the Indiana House of Representatives. The bill would have given high school and middle school journalists more press freedoms. Mallory Smith Buy Photos

Kyra Howard, 17, from the Plainfield High School publication staff, nervously watched the state House of Representatives live stream last week all day for three days in a row. She asked her teachers if she could keep it up on her laptop. 

The bill she was waiting to hear: House Bill 1016, a bill that would give high school and middle school journalists press freedoms.

Last Friday, after two days without a vote, Howard went home and made a Word document of all the state representatives she thought could potentially vote no. She told her friends and family to contact them over the weekend, urging their support for the bill.

On Monday, the last day the House of Representatives could vote on House bills this session, Howard watched from home.

The final vote tally: 47-46. The bill had failed to meet a constitutional majority.

She was heartbroken. Even if a similar bill passed next year, it would not go into effect until after she graduated.

Howard is one of about 20 students on the Plainfield High School publication staff. After an issue of their magazine was censored by school administration, Howard and her peers began working with the Hoosier State Press Association, the Indiana High School State Press Association and state legislators to pass a student journalist freedom law in Indiana.

Although the bill failed Monday in the House, Howard and student journalism advocates will continue to fight for press freedom for student journalists in Indiana.

House Bill 1016 would have required school corporations and charter schools to adopt a policy that would protect student journalists. The bill stated that school corporations could not censor student media. 

It also would have required a teacher to advise student media organizations and would make schools, corporations or educational institutions immune from civil liability for any injury that resulted from student media. 

Howard, a junior, is the co-editor of one of Plainfield’s magazines. Controversy arose last October after Howard’s staff published their first issue of a quarterly magazine. The issue was called “Plainfield High School’s Dating Survival Guide.” The guide had everything from pick-up lines to advice on having a healthy relationship to polls about sexting.

The issue published in the magazine that was called "The Shakedown." The magazine's name was recently changed to "The Shakeout," because administration worried the term "shakedown" referenced a Mafia term. 

The publication and its staff received backlash from parents and school officials. Ever since, the staff has been under prior review, meaning they must give copies of their publication to administrators before publishing. Administrators can then ask them to remove or change anything before they print.

“We couldn’t really do anything,” Howard said. “We haven’t really been able to fight back as a staff.”

Howard and her peers contacted Ryan Gunterman, director of the IHSPA, and Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, author of HB 1016. The students then became involved with the bill, which passed through the House but failed in the Senate last year.

As he testified for the bill Monday, Clere said the potential legislation is similar to protections for student journalists in other states, adding the bill helps protect teachers and administrators. 

Those against the bill argued it could bring chaos to schools, not giving administrations enough control over what publications could print. Some thought it was simply unnecessary. 

"This is an overreaction to a few incidents, in a few schools," Rep. Tony Cook, R-Cicero, said.

Howard said it was hurtful to hear some of the things opponents said. She said many students know the rights they have as journalists.

“We know our ethics,” Howard said. “A lot of us are a lot more mature than we used to be before we were on staff. It changes you for the better.”

Stephen Key, executive director and general counselor for the Hoosier State Press Association, said the biggest disappointment was that opposers of the bill used scare tactics to persuade people to vote against it.

He said there has been no evidence of chaos or increased bullying or fighting in the other states that have similar laws. According to the Student Press Law Center, 13 other states have New Voices legislation, the campaign to get student press freedoms across the country.

Key said that while he does not know what the next steps for the bill will be, he plans to work with other supporters to make the bill better and gain more support.

“Student journalists shouldn’t give up on the idea of being able to practice and learn the responsibilities and importance of journalists,” Key said.

Still, he is optimistic a bill protecting student journalists will eventually be put into law. He said he believes that Hoosiers want freedom of speech and of the press. 

For current student journalists, his biggest advice is to educate others about student journalism and continue to be patient. 

Key urged students and advisors to work with their administrators to build trust and a strong relationship. 

For student journalists currently facing censorship, he said it is important to remain patient and focus on little victories day-by-day.

“Giving up is not an option,” Key said.

Howard said she worries for future students joining the Plainfield staff. She said it will be difficult to explain to them why they have prior review.

She said the worst thing they could do as student journalists is to start self-censoring — being afraid to write something because of a negative reaction from administrators.

“I just want to let them know they’re not doing anything wrong by voicing opinions or if they want to write a controversial story,” Howard said. “That’s what they’re supposed to do.”

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