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Wisconsin Lawmakers Move to Protect the Rights of Student Journalists; Will Madison Schools Follow Suit?

Bipartisan efforts to protect the rights of student journalists are moving forward at the Wisconsin Capitol. Meanwhile, school officials in Madison could move in the opposite direction. District administrators and school board members are updating their policies in collaboration with an Ohio-based company called NEOLA.

NEOLA’s standard media policies are known for restricting the press freedoms of student journalists.

According to the non-partisan Legislative Reference Bureau, Senate bill 571 would “afford certain rights and protections to student journalists who are public school pupils or students enrolled in a University of Wisconsin System institution or technical college.”

Simpson Street Free Press student editors support this bill. We believe in freedom of the press and do not support unnecessary or preemptive restrictions on student writers.

Senate bill 571 addresses the concept of “prior restraint,” which happens when students submit work to school officials for review prior to publishing. The bill would “prohibit school officials from exercising prior restraint of materials prepared for school-sponsored media,” according to Reference Bureau analysis.

NEOLA policies have made news in Wisconsin before, specifically in 2019-20 after the Oshkosh School District used NEOLA policies and prior restraint to limit what student reporters could cover. A story about locked bathrooms and the whereabouts of an assistant principal was pulled from the school's online newspaper an hour after posting. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, that case developed into controversy including “lawsuit threats, contradicting school rules and the best way to teach young journalists.”

A 2020 story from The Capital Times reported on efforts to bring NEOLA policies to Madison. Education reporter, Scott Girard, wrote that “NEOLA has faced criticism in some districts where it operates for its model policies on student publications.”

The Cap Times quoted Mike Hiestand of the Student Press Law Center who called NEOLA a policy mill. “Their student media policy, in particular, has been something we have been battling here at the Student Press Law Center for years,” Hiestand said. "They're horrible student media policies, if you really believe that you should be teaching young journalists how to actually function as journalists."

In a 2020 story published by Simpson Street Free Press, Bill Leuders of the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council questioned whether NEOLA’s more restrictive policies are necessary in Madison.

“The Madison Metropolitan School District should be affording student journalists broad freedom to publish without imposing onerous constraints,” Lueders said. “If the district is indeed moving in this direction, it needs to explain why it is doing so. What problems is it experiencing that it needs to be constricting the freedoms of student journalists?”

Student journalists from across the state recently urged Wisconsin lawmakers to pass the proposed legislation.

Simon Mehring from Stoughton High School told legislators that passing the bill would communicate that in Wisconsin, “civil discourse and dialogue is welcome and that you won't be censored or reprimanded for simply having a different perspective on a matter or discussing a topic that someone doesn't want to hear.”

Lauren Sorensen, former Editor in Chief of the newspaper at West Bend High School, said she viewed censorship as a barrier to learning. “Unfortunately, true educational growth might require a legislative watchdog to protect student journalists from the kind of censorship I have faced this year,” Sorensen said.

NEOLA sells customizable policy templates for school districts. In an email to Simpson Street, Interim Superintendent Lisa Kvistad said MMSD is not adopting NEOLA policies, they “are only working with them to write specific policies that are required for compliance at this time.”

Board President Nichelle Nichols said in an email that NEOLA will “provide a template for [MMSD] to use which will provide suggested language” that will be reviewed and edited before approval. Nichols said the board has not discussed policies related to student media yet.

An earlier version passed unanimously in the Assembly, so we urge our senators to vote for Senate bill 571. We encourage local school officials to avoid language that violates the spirit of this new law. We should embrace policies that protect the rights of student journalists.

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