Student Journalism Protections Advance; Lawmakers Discuss New Prison

March 18, 2021, 5:28 p.m. ·

Attendance was sparse during a Nebraska Legislature filibuster Thursday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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A bill supporters said would protect student journalists and opponents argued would undermine school authority advanced with few votes to spare in the Legislature Thursday. And key lawmakers are meeting to discuss the still-undecided question of whether the state should commit funds this year to building a new prison.

It was the third day of debate on Sen. Adam Morfeld’s bill to strengthen protections for Nebraska student journalists. The bill would say students working for school-sponsored media couldn’t be punished for exercising their First Amendment rights, and their faculty advisers couldn’t be disciplined. There is also a list of exceptions that they could get in trouble or be blocked for, including libel, slander, and invasion of privacy. Morfeld made those arguments in the previous days of debate. But as he rose to speak as Thursday morning’s session got underway, he made it clear he wasn’t going to say much more.

“It’s clear to me after about four and a half hours of debate or so that I’ve done my best to answer the questions. It appears as though there are folks that are trying to use this time to filibuster so I will not be a part of that,” Morfeld said.

On the first round of considering a bill, Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers has said he’ll generally allow 8 hours of debate before someone can make a cloture motion, to cut off debate and vote on the bill. That left opponents of Morfeld’s proposal three and a half hours to fill, which they did. Among them was Sen. Dan Hughes, who suggested schools need to be able to tell student journalists ‘no.’

“There are boundaries that we have to have for our kids. That’s what school is all about. There’s a reason that we don’t let 12-year-olds drive. There’s a maturity factor that does come into play,” Hughes said.

Then, there was Sen. Steve Erdman, who argued local school boards, acting through administrators and faculty, need to be left in charge of what gets published.

“We elect these people locally. We know who they are, we understand what their principles are and what their goals are, and we put those people in a position of leadership to make decisions for our children,” Erdman said.

Sen. Mike Groene said the bill would undermine journalism education and the training of student journalists, by giving them unlimited freedom before they had enough experience.

“This bill is an attack on the honorable profession of journalism, you do know that. It’s trying to take a paper and call it a public forum, which it never was, never will be,” Groene said.

Sen. Matt Hansen, one of the few supporters of the bill who spoke Thursday, denied Groene’s accusation.

“To frame this as an attack on the First Amendment or an attack on the journalist profession is absurd. It’s absurd, it’s wrong, it’s incorrect. I get why you might want to oppose this bill, but that’s for censorship and control of the local school boards. And that’s fair. But don’t wrap yourself in the First Amendment as an opponent of this bill,” Hansen said.

Although opponents dominated Thursday’s debate, Morfeld’s motion to invoke cloture and cut off debate succeeded, with no votes to spare, on a vote of 33-12. Senators then voted 28-15 to give the bill first-round approval. If opponents continue to filibuster, it will take 33 votes two more times to cut off debate. And if Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoes the bill, it would take 30 votes to override.

And, key lawmakers are meeting to discuss whether the state should commit funds this year to building a new prison. Ricketts has proposed spending $230 million to build a new, 1,500 bed facility. Corrections Director Scott Frakes says it’s needed to relieve overcrowding and replace the aging Nebraska State Penitentiary in Lincoln. The governor proposed appropriating half the cost, $115 million, in the two-year budget senators will soon begin considering.

But in the budget proposal crafted by the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, that money has been set aside, but not appropriated, meaning it can’t be spent. Sen. John Stinner, chair of the Appropriations Committee, says he’s not comfortable committing to a new prison yet.

“I acknowledge we’ve got an overcrowded position, I’m willing to allocate money and put it in the construction fund, but I’m not ready to appropriate it for building or for anything else. I just don’t know what the way forward is,” Stinner said.

One thing that could help determine the way forward is a federally-funded study the state is seeking of Nebraska’s criminal justice system, announced last month by Ricketts, Chief Justice Mike Heavican and Sens. Steve Lathrop and Mike Hilgers. The idea is to look for ways to reduce recidivism – former inmates returning to prison -- and cut costs.

Lathrop, who chairs the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, says he wants to see what the study by the Criminal Justice Institute turns up before making major decisions on either sentencing reform or prison construction. He says after the study, a task force would meet this fall to consider it.

Lathrop said after that, lawmkers could “approach next session with a long-term, more holistic plan for dealing with criminal justice issues and the prison overcrowding.”

Stinner said he, Lathrop and Hilgers are beginning to meet to discuss questions surrounding the prison proposal. Hilgers said the Ricketts’ administration has made a good initial case for construction, and the goal of the meetings is to get answers to certain questions.

Hilgers aid those question include “the need for the new facility, the case that’s being made, the questions we have regarding the facility, timing, can we wait, can we not wait, (and) what happens if we wait?”

Asked how important it is to Ricketts that the new prison be approved this year, spokesman Taylor Gage said the study Lathrop and Stinner want to wait for doesn’t change the need to replace the state penitentiary. He added the governor is working with Hilgers and Stinner on how this will be reflected in this year’s budget. For NET News at the Capitol, I’m Fred Knapp.