Passion filled the room when free press advocates, student journalists and educators stressed the importance of unrestricted journalism for high school and college students in a state Senate committee hearing regarding the Walter Cronkite New Voices Act on Wednesday — which the committee then passed 7-0.
In 1988, Missouri became the birthplace of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which held that student newspapers are subject to a lower level of First Amendment protection. But the Senate Education Committee gave unanimous support for the New Voices Act, which passed 131-12 in the state House of Representatives last month and would restore many of the protections for student journalists removed by the Hazelwood decision.
During the hearing, testimony in support of increased student free speech and press rights in state high schools and colleges was met with deep criticism from opponents of the bill, who represented high school administrators.
The bill, introduced by Republican Rep. Elijah Haahr in January, 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.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said he and others who testified in support of the bill walked out when the hearing was finished thinking, “What just happened?”
He said it wasn’t clear that the committee would vote on the bill today, and he didn’t expect a unanimous vote due to strong opposition testimony from the Missouri Council of School Administrators. Representatives from MCSA argued that the bill would expose young students to inappropriate subject matter and the school could be held liable for what student newspapers publish.
But LoMonte said the climate could not have been more favorable for the bill after an incident on the University of Missouri campus last fall that garnered national attention and criticism.
In November, university faculty and students were caught on videoattempting to limit the access of Tim Tai, a student photojournalist who also testified Wednesday in support of New Voices, by blocking him from covering a protest on campus.
After this incident, Haahr previously told SPLC that there is a lot of interest in the state to protect free speech.
“It could not be more timely than it is right now,” Haahr said.
Meredith Wright, a student editor at Kirkwood High School who also testified, said afterwards that she believed the senators were understanding of the desire to pass free press legislation for students in the state.
“As a high school student journalist, I wanted to emphasize how at Kirkwood we are given a lot of freedom to write what we want,” Wright said, “and that has been positive for our school and the community.”
She said the New Voices Act will help teach student journalists to report ethically on fairly, especially on controversial issues.
Mitch Eden, president of the Missouri Journalism Education Association, also testified in support of the bill, arguing that when teenagers are put into a scholastic journalism climate where the administration is hands-off and trusts the students, it can be an “incredible environment for students to thrive.”
“The only thing censorship does is take the energy out of student journalists, kill programs and destroy any wanting of kids to practice journalism at all,” Eden said.
Four other states — Illinois, Michigan, Rhode Island and Maryland — have seen similar pieces of legislation progress as part of a nationwide New Voices campaign led by SPLC that aims to restore free speech rights for student 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 law.
Maryland is the furthest along, with both chambers of the legislature passing the student press freedom bill, which is now waiting for the governor’s signature. Illinois’ House Judiciary-Civil Committee unanimously passed the state’s New Voices bill earlier this month, with an amendment added that both ensured school districts or employees will not be held liable for student expression and limited prior restraint.
Now, Missouri’s New Voices Act has just under four weeks to receive a hearing on the Senate floor before the legislative session ends. In a Facebook post on the New Voices of Missouri group, Robert Bergland, a journalism professor at Missouri Western State University and the organizer of the New Voices campaign, wrote that it was a tough road ahead, as the Senate must consider a lot of bills in its limited time and “partisan squabbling” has held up floor business.
But supporters of the legislation remain optimistic.
“We live in a different world now than we did during the Hazelwood decision,” LoMonte said. “The job of schools today is to teach students how to consume and create news in an ethical and responsible way.”