Indiana Daily Student

Committee hears testimony on student press freedom protection bill

Students from all around Indiana gathered at the Statehouse early morning Valentine’s Day to celebrate a mutual love — journalism.

The students came in blue shirts with star-and-stripe speech bubbles and #BeHeard splayed on the front. They hailed from places such as Evansville, Indiana, and Carmel, Indiana, and they brought pins and colorful candy hearts with tiny words engraved into them: “I heart  HB 1130.” They got there before 8:30 a.m.and they waited patiently for hours to testify in support of their press freedoms.

“I believe we cannot fear the youth,” said Paris Garnier, a student journalist at IU-Purdue University Indianapolis, during testimony. “We are the future, and this bill will protect our future.”

House Bill 1130 has bipartisan support from its author and co-author, Rep. Ed Clere, R-New Albany, and Rep. Ed DeLaney, D-Indianapolis. It’s part of a movement sweeping the nation that would provide protection for student journalists primarily at the high school and college levels, though Indiana’s bill includes kindergarten and grade school, too. According to the bill, educational institutions would not be able to suppress school-sponsored media unless it’s libelous or slanderous.

The bill also has strong support from both the Indiana High School and Indiana Collegiate Press Associations. Similar bills, promoted by New Voices USA, have passed or are currently being considered in states across the country.

Lydia Gerike, an IU freshman studying journalism and a reporter for the Indiana Daily Student, was the first to testify in support of HB 1130.

Gerike said chose IU in part because the student newspaper is independent from the University. Because she had a comprehensive journalism education in high school, she was able to jump into covering complex issues as an elections reporter for the IDS during her first semester as a freshman.

“As often as we disagree, journalists and politicians are the same at our cores,” Gerike said. “We are civil servants.”

Others who testified provided examples of some of the nuanced and controversial issues they’ve had the opportunity to cover and write about through high school and college journalism programs.

Garnier said during her time as a student journalist at Warren Central High School in Indianapolis, she had the freedom to write editorials about contentious topics such as vaccines, violence in poverty and the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Students have to be given the chance to practice and perfect the skills needed to be good at the job, Garnier said. Learning to be a good journalist is a very vocational practice, she said.

“The best way to learn if journalism is right for us is to be in an environment that mimics the real world as closely as possible,” Garnier said.

Selena Qian, editor-in-chief of the quarterly publication Acumen at Carmel High School, also testified to her fortune at coming from a high school with a good administration-journalism program relationship.

As it stands, with no law like the New Voices legislation in place in Indiana, it’s up to the discretion of a school administration to decide whether to enact prior review or prior restraint, which is when an administrator looks over a piece before it is published and decides whether or not it can see the light of day.

Qian happens to come from a high school without prior review or prior restraint.

“Frankly, freedom of press shouldn’t be a matter of luck,” Qian said during her testimony.

Precedent on this subject was set in 1988, when Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, a landmark case for student press freedoms, gave administrators ability to prior review and restrain.

Diana Hadley, director of IHSPA who helped spearhead the campaign in Indiana, was a high school journalism teacher when the Hazelwood decision came down. She testified Tuesday that the case gave administrators a tool to control student voice with which they were uncomfortable, causing some schools to miss valuable teaching moments.

The legislature heard from many students and advisers who are fortunate to have press freedoms, Hadley said. But many around the state are not as fortunate.

One such adviser who testified Tuesday was Amy Sorrell, who previously taught at Woodlan Junior-Senior High School in Woodland, Indiana. Sorrell said she lost her job due to the publication of a very small piece that encouraged tolerance.

The short opinion column merely said students should be kind to gay students, Sorrell said. However, after its publication, the school district decided to enact prior review. Later that year, after the incident had gained national media attention, Sorrell was abruptly fired. That was the last time she taught at a public school in Indiana, Sorrell said.

“I lost my job defending my student,” Sorrell said. “I printed that article 10 years ago. I would print it today.”

Other support for the bill came from the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., IU and the Media School, and the Hoosier State Press Association. A few concerned comments during the hearing regarded the possibility of students being irresponsible when given more freedom to publish pieces, but testifiers reassured listeners that HB 1130 would not eliminate the very present role of journalism advisers to provide guidance to their students.

The hearing was adjourned around 1 p.m., and Committee Chair Rep. Bob Behning, R-Indianapolis, said testimony will continue Thursday. Behning said still left to testify are two who oppose the bill.

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