Bill would protect some student journalists

Some legislation just shouldn’t be necessary, but common sense is so rare.

This past week the Senate Committee on Education forwarded to the full Senate Senate Bill 420, which is being described as the Nevada version of New Voices legislation, which requires schools to draft policies to protect student journalists and student publications from censorship and punishment for publication, according to the Nevada Press Association.

The bill adds this language to the law: “The board of trustees of each school district, the governing body of each charter school and the governing body of each university school for profoundly gifted pupils shall adopt a written policy for pupil publications which: (a) Establishes reasonable provisions governing the time, place and manner for the distribution of pupil publications; and (b) Protects the right of expression described in subsection 1 for pupils working on pupil publications as journalists in their determination of the news, opinions, feature content, advertising content and other content of pupil publications.”

I wrote about a student censorship effort that took place in 2010, when a choir teacher at the Churchill County High School sued a student journalist at the school’s student newspaper for writing an article — that was actually printed in the Lahontan Valley News, the community newspaper — saying parents were upset that the teacher withheld certain students’ audition tapes from a state musical competition. The case was thrown out with the judge citing the state’s anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) statute in effect at the time.

Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, said at the time, “Anti-SLAPP statutes are important to protect free speech, because sometimes people sue just to silence their critics.”

Efforts to repeal the anti-SLAPP law have been unsuccessful so far.

But the law of the land for students is found in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held in 1988: “A school need not tolerate student speech that is inconsistent with its basic educational mission, even though the government could not censor similar speech outside the school.”

Former Fallon student Lauren Draper, who penned the choir teacher story, testified for SB420.

“Less than six months from graduating Churchill County High School, I found myself terrified,” she told legislators, according to NPA’s account. “After I sought and reported the truth about choir students’ audition tapes  being withheld from a statewide competition, I found myself frightened and confused about whether I had made the right decision in writing the article. I followed the code of ethics and made no libelous claims, yet I felt guilty and ashamed of reporting the truth. I was shamed by teachers I had respected and was called a ‘zealous child’ by the co-chair of the Churchill County Educators Association.”

Since Hazelwood schools have too often used censorship to protect administrators from being embarrassed by student journalists rather than protecting the “educational mission.”

 

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Attorneys gone wild! Bill would eviscerate Nevada’s strong anti-SLAPP law

In 2013 the Nevada Legislature passed a strong anti-SLAPP law that was called the gold standard of such laws.

SLAPP stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation and is generally defined as vexatious litigation solely designed to squelch free speech under the burden of expensive, tedious and lengthy court wrangling.

But Senate Bill 444 seeks to pull its teeth.

The bill was proffered by Wynn Resorts, whose owner has filed a few defamation suits over the years. It has already passed out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the full Senate unanimously.

I wrote about the anti-SLAPP law in 2010, when a choir teacher at the Churchill County High School sued a student journalist at the school’s student newspaper for writing an article saying parents were upset that she withheld certain students’ audition tapes from a state musical competition. The case was thrown out with the judge citing the anti-SLAPP statute in effect at the time.

Today Review-Journal columnist John L. Smith and capital bureau reporter Sean Whaley both wrote about the SB444, scooping their former editor who filed his newspaper column on this bill over the week and which will be printed this week and a version posted here.

Mitchell Langberg, a Wynn attorney, testified in favor of the bill on April 6. There was no opposition. Langberg said the 2013 version of the law was too broad and too limiting on plaintiffs, such as his client, who lost a defamation case in California because of its anti-SLAPP law, though Wynn did win a defamation suit against the producer of the “Girls Gone Wild” videos.

Wynn also lost a 2001 defamation suit against columnist Smith, but Smith was not awarded costs and attorney fees, which are to be awarded under the current anti-SLAPP law.

SB444 eviscerates the level of proof a plaintiff must show to have the anti-SLAPP motion dismissed. Currently a plaintiff must show “clear and convincing evidence” of a probability prevailing in the suit. SB444 reduces this to “prima facie evidence,” which means the allegations are presumed to be true until proven false, completely shifting the burden of proof.

Marc Randazza, who helped draft the 2013 anti-SLAPP update, calls SB444 “a paragon of sleaze. It starts off with preamble statements that make it seem like it is there to protect freedom of expression, but once you read it, you realize that whoever drafted this must have done so with the clear intent of destroying the Anti-SLAPP law.”

Whaley quoted Barry Smith, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, as saying, “Anti-SLAPP statutes are important to protect free speech, because sometimes people sue just to silence their critics. After 2013, Nevada had one of the strongest anti-SLAPP laws in the country. SB444 would weaken it substantially.”

He quoted his newspaper’s in-house attorney, Mark Hinueber, as saying, “SB 444 seems to be a solution in search of a problem that doesn’t exist. The current statute, as amended in the last legislative session, balances competing interests and should not be altered.”

SB444 is scheduled to be heard by the Assembly Judiciary Committee Friday morning. Perhaps there will be opposition this time.

Look for my column on this topic later in the week.

Here is Langberg’s testimony: