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Students See Need for First Amendment Rights

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Gracia Lantis stands in front of North Platte High School.
Gracia Lantis is at the forefront of the fight Nebraska student journalists have undertaken to see their free speech rights restored and protected. PHOTO BY: The Bulldogger Staff

Austin Oerman

 

Gracia Lantis is the youngest person in the senior class at North Platte High School in North Platte, Nebraska. Doesn’t matter, she’s still testified in front of the Nebraska Legislature more times than any of her classmates.

 

Lantis talked in front of the Legislature in early January to support LB 206, a bill proposed by Senator Adam Morfeld (D-46) that would restore and protect student journalists’ First Amendment rights as well as protect their advisors from any undue penalties.

 

For the last three years, Lantis has been a member of The Bulldogger staff, the newspaper published at NPHS. Currently, she is the social media editor for the paper and, while she doesn’t write as often as she formerly did, she has seen fellow staff members come under fire from the administration for what they wrote.

 

One example sticks vividly in her mind.

 

In October 2019, Lantis and the staff reported on vaping among teens at the school. After talking to students and administrators, including the principal and the student resource officer, the paper published an article about vaping and e-cigarette use at the school.

 

Two months after publication, the administration lambasted the paper’s staff.

 

“My E.I.C. and adviser were called in for a meeting,” Lantis said. “The principal who was quoted in the story threatened my advisor’s job and our paper, and told my editor we were ‘not the New York Times,’ and that we were simply a ‘public relations department’ for the school district.’”

 

Lantis has also faced expulsion in her time as a writer. In her junior year, she and a fellow writer covered the trial of a North Platte High student charged with first-degree murder. Because of their coverage, the administration threatened to boot them both from school.

 

Morfeld feels strongly about the issue of protections for student journalists because he faced the same problems while he was in school. He wrote for The Daily Nebraskan while at UNL, but even before that, he faced Lantis’ fate while he attended Lincoln High School in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

 

At Lincoln High, the school-sponsored newspaper is called the Statesman. Enterprising as he was, Morfeld decided to start his own paper and called it “The Federal Woman.” The administrators at the school did not take to that kindly.

 

“The principal called me into the office, said it was an unauthorized paper. ‘You need to cease and desist, otherwise, you’ll be expelled.’ I was a little shocked,” Morfeld said.

 

That did not deter him. Not long after, he distributed a new edition of the paper and the process repeated itself. It wasn’t until after the principal called Morfeld’s attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union that Morfeld got an apology and was allowed to publish his paper freely.

 

Getting expelled was a threat leveled at both Lantis and Morfeld that both understood. However, Morfeld’s proposed legislation also defends against a less visible threat – prior restraint.

 

Nebraska was the launching site for one of the country’s most notable prior restraint cases. In 1976, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Nebraska Press Association v. Stuart that a judge could not prevent media outlets from publishing information about Erwin Simants’ murder trial before a jury was impaneled.

 

Today, Nebraska is one of 25 states that either has legislation pending or in place that limits the circumstances in which prior restraints are legal. One of those states with legislation is Kansas, the birthplace of The Daily Nebraskan’s editor-in-chief, Karissa Schmidt.

 

Schmidt says she considers herself lucky to have grown up in Kansas, where student press freedoms were protected. The friends she’s met in college “weren’t even able to talk about safe sex in a normal way because they could not use the words ‘condom’ or ‘birth control.’

 

Active legislation allowed her school to write about such topics, as well as decisions made by the school board and student council. Pending legislation hasn’t been enough to stop prior restraints in North Platte.

 

Lantis has faced prior restraint during her three years at The Bulldogger. She lists articles about teen pregnancy, marijuana usage, special education-inclusive PE classes, and racism that have all been censored before publication by school administrators.

 

Morfeld described the attitudes of the censors and opponents of the bill as “paternalistic,” and Lantis agrees. However, she finds there’s an even more problematic belief.

 

“My whole high school career I’ve been belittled and made to feel as though my ideas are worth less than an adult’s simply because I’m a teenager.”

 

She understands why administrators would want the power to exercise prior restraints, but that the nature of journalism makes that an untenable situation.

 

“We would be appalled if the Washington Post had to send a copy of their paper to be reviewed by the President of the United States or their administration every morning, but it’s the same concept,” she said.

 

Morfeld’s bill would limit the prior restraint power administrators have as well as provide protection from punishments like prosecution or expulsion. However, there are what Morfeld called “guardrails” that make sure students and their advisors don’t have “carte blanche” to publish anything they want.

 

As is the standard in professional newsrooms, there are ethical limits on what students can publish. Articles that are libelous or slanderous, those that constitute an unnecessary invasion of privacy, those that violate state and/or federal law, and those that incite students to act in such a manner as to cause a clear and present danger would not receive protection.

 

Schmidt would tell lawmakers and opponents of LB 206 the same thing.

 

Freedom of the press, student press in particular, is not a free pass to say whatever you want. Student newspapers will still abide by the student press guidelines of ethics and law,” she said. “However, freedom of the press provides the needed protections to be able to report on important topics and keep the people of power in check.”

 

Lantis believes that being free to practice journalism in a professional manner can only assist in learning, something she discovered while covering the murder trial.

 

“We were confronted by various members of the student’s family, including his younger brother who approached me during school. That whole experience taught me about ethics and reinforced my ideas about how sensitive a journalist needs to be,” she said.

 

Building habits is another aspect of practice Lantis finds important. Students shouldn’t be looking over their shoulders or taught that only articles with positive spins are beneficial to the community, she says. Instead, being a journalist – and understanding what that means – is so much more.

 

“What you practice becomes habit, and that’s why it’s important for students to have First Amendment protections,” she said. “It’s important to understand why and how you’re able to have those protections so we can appreciate them and use them to benefit our institutions and communities.”