Missouri legislator introduces ‘New Voices’ bill to protect student journalists from censorship

MISSOURI — Almost three decades ago, a U.S. Supreme Court case centered around a Missouri school district drastically slashed student journalists’ rights in favor of school administrators. Now, a newly filed piece of legislation aims to restore those rights to student journalists in Missouri public schools and colleges.

On Tuesday, Rep. Elijah Haahr, a Republican, introduced the Walter Cronkite New Voices Act. The bill would protect student journalists’ right to exercise freedom of the speech and of the press in school-sponsored media — regardless of whether the school district financially supports the media or if the publication is produced as part of a class. The bill would prohibit school officials from exercising prior restraints over student media unless the reporters were about to publish libelous or slanderous material, invade privacy, violate the law or incite a disruption at school.

Haahr said a journalism professor from his alma mater, Missouri Western State University, called him and asked if he would be interested in sponsoring the legislation. The professor, Robert Bergland, is the adviser of the student newspaper Griffon News and has been leading the New Voices of Missouri campaign ever since he heard a presentation from Steve Listopad, the journalism professor who led the original New Voices bill to victory in North Dakota.

North Dakota’s John Wall New Voices Act passed the state legislature unanimously and became law in August. That made North Dakota the eighth state to pass legislation reinforcing students’ right to free speech and sparked a nationwide effort, led by the Student Press Law Center, to bring similar legislation to other states.

There are about 20 state campaigns so far, including active ones in Michigan, Illinois and Minnesota.

Bergland said he never taught Haahr in a class, but he saw that Haahr had sponsored other legislation related to civics education for high school students and thought he might be interested in helping Missouri follow North Dakota’s footsteps.

“We hope to continue the tide of legislation and get this bill passed this year,” he said.

Haahr said he was never personally involved in student journalism, but he wants to protect student journalists’ free speech rights.

“Missouri is the home of one of the world’s most famous and iconic journalists in Walter Cronkite, but also the home of the Hazelwood decision that saw the rights of student journalists suppressed,” he said in a statement. “My hope is that we can reestablish Missouri as a place that supports the freedom of the press, and protects the rights of high school and college student journalists.”

In an interview, Haahr said he’s been in touch with the plaintiff in the Hazelwood case, Cathy Kuhlmeier Frey, who still lives in Missouri. Kuhlmeier Frey was a student journalist in 1983 who sued after her principal censored from the student newspaper a special teen issue section that included articles on teen pregnancy and the impact of divorce on students.

The resulting 1988 Supreme Court case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, decided that a high school-sponsored newspaper produced as part of a class without a clear policy establishing it as a public forum for student expression could be censored, as long as school officials had a reasonable educational justification and their censorship was viewpoint neutral.

The plan is for Kuhlmeier Frey to testify in favor of the legislation, Haahr said. The Missouri Journalism Education Association, the Missouri Press Association and the Missouri College Media Association have all expressed support for the bill.

The legislation will likely be referred to committee next week, Haahr said. Bergland said the next steps for the campaign will be contacting legislators to shore up support for the bill and getting more people to testify. Kuhlmeier Frey’s testimony about her experiences, he said, would be “incredibly powerful.”

Missouri is so far the second state with New Voices legislation in 2016. Last month, a New Jersey legislator filed a similar New Voices bill that would protect the free speech rights of student journalists at New Jersey public schools and colleges. The bill has been referred to the General Assembly Education Committee, but the primary (and so far, only) sponsor, Assemblywoman Donna M. Simon, a Republican, lost re-election and is leaving the legislature.

The New Jersey bill will have to be reintroduced in the upcoming session, which starts January 12.

SPLC staff writer Madeline Will can be reached by email or at (202) 833-4614.

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