Free speech advocates testify in support of Missouri student press freedom legislation

MISSOURI — The hearing room was packed, but when a Missouri house committee member asked for opposing testimony on a bill that would protect free speech rights for student journalists, everyone fell quiet.

“It was the longest 20 seconds of my life,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director at the Student Press Law Center. “That told me that we are living in a very different day.” Just under 30 years ago, Missouri was the birthplace of a U.S. Supreme Court case that slashed the rights of student journalists.

But on Monday, about a dozen student journalists, free press advocates and student newspaper advisers testified at a hearing in support of anti-censorship legislation.

The witnesses appeared before the Missouri House Emerging Issues Committee during a hearing about the Walter Cronkite New Voices Act introduced by Rep. Elijah Haahr earlier this year. The committee is set to vote on the bill Wednesday.

The bill would restore many of the protections for student journalists removed in the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which gave school administrators the power to censor school newspapers for any reasonable educational justification. The case originated from a high school in Missouri.

Cathy Kuhlmeier Frey, a former student journalist who was the lead plaintiff in theHazelwood case, testified in support of the bill. Her student newspaper’s special teen issue section with articles on teen pregnancy and the impact of divorce on students was censored by an administrator.

“I think this Hazelwood case has been a black eye on Missouri and scholastic journalism since the case came down in the late ‘80s,” said Doug Crews, executive director at the Missouri Press Association, who testified at the hearing. The MPA, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, have endorsed the bill.

If passed, the bill would protect student journalists’ rights to “exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media,” regardless of whether the publication is produced as part of a class or paid for by the school.

The bill would not allow high school officials to impose prior restraint over school-sponsored media, except in certain cases, such as if students were to publish libelous content, invade privacy, incite a disruption or violate state or federal law.

LoMonte said when nobody stood up to give testimony in opposition of the bill at the hearing, he knew there had been a change in public perception of school censorship.

LoMonte said people have begun to understand that censoring school media does not prevent students from being exposed to controversial content. He said administrators have begun to realize that school-sponsored media is a solution to talking about controversial subjects and not the problem — something the legislators on the committee seemed to understand as well.

“They understood immediately that verified facts and adult-supervised information is always better than the online rumor mill,” LoMonte said.

Among those testifying was University of Missouri student photojournalist Tim Tai, who received national attention after a viral video in November showed student and faculty protesters blocking him from photographing a protest on Missouri’s campus.

Tai said he emphasized to the legislators that student journalists produce quality journalism and should have the same free speech rights afforded to their professional counterparts. He said the Hazelwood decision has been over-applied and has led school administrators to censor quality stories because they might make a school look bad.

“I think it’s important for journalists to stand up for these freedoms,” Tai said.

Missouri Association of School Administrators sent a letter expressing concern about the bill Monday, arguing that while it is well-intentioned, school districts could be held liable for student journalists’ speech.

“This is extremely concerning and will likely have the practical effect of districts simply canceling their programs,” the letter states. Nobody from the association testified at the hearing.

Haahr, who introduced the bill in early January, said there is a lot of interest around protecting free speech given what happened at the protest at the University of Missouri.

“It could not be more timely than it is right now,” Haahr said.

A number of other free speech advocates also testified at the hearing, including Mitch Eden, president of the Missouri Journalism Education Association and Meredith Wright, a student editor at Kirkwood High School.

Three other states — Washington, Nebraska and New Jersey — have seen similar pieces of legislation filed as part of a nationwide New Voices campaign led by the SPLC that aims to restore free speech rights for students journalists state by state. Inspired by North Dakota’s unanimous passage of the John Wall New Voices Act last year, about 20 states have ongoing campaigns to pass their own New Voices Acts.

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