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Two bills aimed at protecting student First Amendment rights introduced in Nebraska

Last week, Nebraska State Senator Steve Halloran introduced LB 718, the “Higher Education Free Speech Accountability Act.” If signed into law, the bill will protect free speech rights of students at institutions of higher education in Nebraska.

The Higher Education Free Speech Accountability Act would require public colleges and universities in Nebraska to promulgate policies that echo the Chicago Statement, including a provision stating that a “campus must strive to ensure the fullest degree of intellectual freedom and free expression.” The bill would also prevent colleges from disinviting outside speakers invited by students or student groups. Importantly, LB 718 would prohibit universities from relegating student expression to small, misleadingly labeled “free speech zones.”

LB 718 would also require Nebraska colleges to develop a “series of sanctions for persons violating the policy governing free expression, including increased sanctions for repeat violators.” We are pleased that the bill takes this approach, as opposed to language we have seen in other states that seeks to mandate minimum penalties. Mandatory minimum sanctions do not allow for fact-finders to assess an individual’s personal degree of culpability or the seriousness of their actions, and are ripe for abuse.

Another bill worth noting is also pending in Nebraska: State Senator Adam Morfeld introduced LB 886 on Monday to protect the rights of student journalists in both the K-12 and higher education settings. The legislation is modeled on bills championed by the Student Press Law Center’s New Voices campaign. FIRE strongly supports this effort to strengthen protections for college student journalists. LB 866, if enacted, would succeed in protecting student journalists in Nebraska by declaring that all school-sponsored media are public forums, and ensuring that student journalists, not college administrators, would be responsible for determining “the news, opinion, feature, sports, and advertising content of school-sponsored media.”

FIRE looks forward to working with Nebraska legislators to refine the language in the bills to ensure that student rights are best protected on campus. We will be sure to update FIRE supporters on our progress.

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