Confederate Flags, Prior Review: Incidents Behind Student Journalism Protections Bill

March 26, 2021, 6:34 a.m. ·

The North Platte High School prior review incident happened last year but was recently mentioned in the Nebraska Legislature (Photo by Sophia Walsh).

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Sen. Adam Morfeld’s LB88 bill that protects student journalists and their advisers exercising their First Amendment rights in school-sponsored publications received first-round approval last week.​ NET’s Melissa Rosales takes a closer look at school incidents in North Platte and Omaha that have sparked debate on the bill.

In September of last year, there were rumors going around in North Platte High School. A student had posted a video admitting she stole a Confederate flag from another student’s pickup truck. Editor-in-Chief of The Bulldogger, the school’s newspaper, Sophia Walsh, investigated and wrote a story to shed light on what some see as a racism issue at the school.

"We had every perspective and I think it needed to be around when it was to start conversations within the school in the community," she said. "And it was heartbreaking that all of the work that we put into it was really for nothing at that point."

After going back and forth with the school’s principal on edits for weeks, Walsh said she finally decided to see if the local paper, The North Platte Bulletin, would publish it instead. The article appeared in the paper in October. Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte spoke about the incident in his floor speech opposing the bill.

Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte opposes LB88 (Screenshot).

“The system works. One publication said ‘No, we will not print it.’ Freedom of the press. Another publication said ‘Yes, we will print it.’ Freedom of the press. It worked," he said. "This here is a direct attack on the control of a school board and of an administration to keep the focus of a school paper on what it is.”

Groene said the school board is the publisher so they have the right to control the student paper’s content. Walsh understands why schools might not want controversial stories about their district.

“But I also think it's a learning point for a lot of people that, if we did publish the story in the paper, instead of having it be something that people didn't know about, that it would be a talking point where they can get opinions from the students and see what the problems are, that they're not necessarily seeing on an everyday basis,” she said.

Walsh acknowledges in the past, the school has always been supportive of the stories they’ve published. She said she ran the piece somewhere else because she believed the story needed to be out there sooner to be newsworthy. In a statement, the district said they’re confident in the administration’s handling of the situation and consider the matter resolved.

Freedom with limitations

Sen. Morfeld disagrees with Groene’s argument on school’s freedom of press. He said the point of a public school is to allow students to channel their energies in a supervised environment with protections, but also limitations on content that could get them in trouble for, including libel, slander, and invasion of privacy.

Sen. Adam Morfeld designated the Student Journalism Protection Act as his priority bill in March 11 (NET Screenshot).

"Students are not allowed to 'print whatever they want," he said. "They have to work with their faculty advisor, editor, and any material or content that violates any of the above mentioned criteria, the publication can be halted or the student disciplined as it currently is."

Morfeld said the government should not dictate what content students produce when done in a respectful and legal manner.

Will Eikenbary agrees.

The Westside High School senior is a coordinator for student publications and testified in support of LB88 in January. For over 40 years, the Westside Community Schools district in Omaha didn’t enforce prior review of student articles until last year. Eikenbary fears students will self-censor their work.

"It's really hard to see so many kids who were so inspired and so happy with the program last year, and then after prior review was enforced, how that enthusiasm has really turned into dissatisfaction or wanting to leave the program after they’ve been in it for so long," he said.

In a statement, the district said they’re neutral to the bill and have nothing further to add.

'Keep Reporting'

North Platte Bulletin Editor George Lauby encourages high school journalists to keep reporting whether the bill passes or not.

"Don't be afraid to tackle some controversial and interesting topics that are on the minds of students, and teachers, and administrators," he said. "That's a good way to grow and understand the responsibilities and the privileges of being in the newspaper business or being in journalism."

Despite publishing Walsh’s piece in The North Platte Bulletin, Lauby doesn’t think it’s necessary to have a statewide bill. He said newspaper owners should always have the option to publish a piece or not. But, he said that power should be used sparingly with a lot of respect for the efforts student journalists made.

"They just want to be treated with respect, be able to do the jobs, and learn the jobs. They don't want arbitrary decisions that they don't understand. I don't think we need a law to do that," he said. "We just need people to do that. That's what we're going to come down to anyways, it's people doing the right thing."

Senators voted 28-15 to advance LB88 for second-round approval. It will take two more rounds of votes to stop debates if opponents continue to filibuster, and 30 votes if Gov. Ricketts vetoes the bill. Only 14 states have laws protecting free student press.