Reading comprehension

The Washoe County School District and student journalists have a dispute. Last year, the Nevada Legislature enacted Senate Bill 420, protecting student publications from censorship. The Washoe School Board has its staff drafting language to implement the bill. But both sides are characterizing the bill with phrases like “the way we interpreted it,” instead of quoting the bill itself.

In a recent Reno Gazette-Journal report, WCSD staff policy coordinator Lisa Scarry was quoted saying that yearbooks are not journalism: “The consensus was a yearbook isn’t really a journalistic enterprise, which is what that Senate bill that was referenced speaks to. … That Senate bill, the way we interpreted it … was more for journalistic enterprises like school newspaper or things that students are publishing versus a yearbook, which is, really—to my understanding anyway—outlined by the school.”

But there is a bigger flaw in Scarry’s comments. She is characterizing the Senate bill as protecting journalism. It doesn’t. It protects publications. The word journalism does not appear in S.B. 420, nor does journalist or any other derivation. The bill actually says that it “(c) Prohibits, without limitation, the following: (1) Restricting the publication of any content in pupil publications …” Subsequent numbered sections do not add references to journalists.

If the WCSD tried to strip 420 protection from yearbooks based on their journalism or lack of it, it would be faced with defending content-based censorship, a difficult legal undertaking. Like the First Amendment, 420 covers all content, not just journalism.

Scarry is not the only one fuzzing the issues. In a message from the co-editors of the Reno High yearbook that is circulating, they write that S.B. 420 approves protection for “media in any format that is made available to a student audience,” which sounds like it would protect student broadcasting, online media, or whatever. But 420 doesn’t say that. It limits its protection to “pupil publications.” While the federal courts have interpreted the First Amendment’s press guarantees to mean many forms of expression, there has been no such finding by state courts interpreting the new state statute.