MISSOURI — Nearly 30 years ago, Missouri was the birthplace of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision that decided student newspapers are subject to a lower level of First Amendment protection. On Tuesday, the Missouri House of Representatives gave overwhelming support to a bill that would eradicate that notion from schools in the state.
Lawmakers voted 131-12 to pass the Walter Cronkite New Voices Act, introduced by Republican Rep. Elijah Haahr. The bill would protect student journalists’ right to exercise freedom of 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.
According to the New Voices Act, student journalists are to be responsible for determining the news, opinion, feature and advertising content of school-sponsored media, unless such material is libelous, an invasion of privacy, a violation of the law or incites students to create a clear and present danger. The bill also prohibits school officials from exercising prior restraint over student media and would protect student media advisers from retaliatory punishment.
The bill would restore many of the protections for student journalists removed by 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.
Haahr said the New Voices Act would give students similar protections to professional journalists, according to the Associated Press. He said Missouri should make it clear free speech is valued after the state drew national attention for confrontations between University of Missouri faculty and student journalists.
In November, a viral video revealed two Missouri faculty members attempting to block student journalists from covering an encampment of Concerned Student 1950, a group fighting to expose racism on campus.
Robert Bergland, a journalism professor at Missouri Western State University and organizer of the New Voices of Missouri campaign, said though he hoped the House vote would have been unanimous like in North Dakota, which passed a New Voices law last year, he was happy to see the bill pass with an overwhelming majority because it may increase the likelihood of it being signed into law.
He said the testimony given before the House Emerging Issues Committee about the New Voices Act was a great help towards the bill’s success. The committee unanimously voted to pass the bill.
Among those who testified in support of the bill was Cathy Kuhlmeier Frey, a former student journalist who was the lead plaintiff in the Hazelwood case. Her student newspaper’s special teen issue section with articles on the effect of divorce on students and teen pregnancy was censored by an administrator. The executive director of the Missouri Press Association, the president of the Missouri Journalism Education Association and the Student Press Law Center’s executive director also testified in support of the legislation.
“We had some great, heavy-hitters who supported the issue,” Bergland said. “Without any vocal opposition at the hearing, that really helped our case.”
The Missouri Association of School Administrators had sent a letter of concern about the bill, arguing that school districts could be held liable for students’ speech. But no representatives from the organization testified.
Bergland said the bill is important to students in Missouri because it prevents censorship from high school administrators that restrict students from reporting to the best of their ability. He said it also prevents self-censorship by students.
“So often students don’t tackle tough stories because they think or know their high school administrators will censor their work,” he said. “Then they don’t seek to accomplish good journalism to begin with.”
He said students are sometimes apathetic because they feel like they can’t make a difference, and this bill will help increase their ability to civically participate.
The bill will now go to the state Senate.
“When you have students who can cover journalism that makes a difference and gets them involved,” Bergland said, “you should encourage that, not try to stop it.”
SPLC staff writer Kaitlin DeWulf can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6317.