Missouri’s New Voices movement resumes with a new bill

MISSOURI — Press freedom advocates in Missouri are taking another shot at protecting the state’s student journalists. State Rep. Kevin Corlew, R-Kansas City, introduced a revamped version of the Cronkite New Voices Act on Jan. 5.

“I think most people recognize the importance of the freedom of expression as it is done through the press, and the importance of press. We want to make sure that our student journalists are realizing that too, and just because issues touch upon controversial subjects or political subjects that they should not be censored,” Corlew said.

Shifting priorities in the Missouri General Assembly led to the death of the first iteration of the Act, even though it didn’t face much meaningful opposition. Backed by a group of educators led by college journalism instructor Robert Bergland, the bill had sailed through the House and a Senate committee before stalling out in the full Senate. It had included protections for all public school students in Missouri, including K-12, high school, and college.

“It often does take a couple of years to get through the process. It’s not necessarily indicative that there’s not support there,” Corlew said.

Crucially, the new bill no longer contains protections for student journalists below the high school level. It prohibits administrators from retaliating against faculty and staff for their support of student coverage, and protects schools from liability for coverage and views expressed in student publications. Corlew sponsors the bill now in lieu of Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, last year’s sponsor, who has taken a leadership position.

Missouri Journalism Educators Association president and Kirkwood High School adviser Mitch Eden, a proponent of the proposed law, said the changes to the bill were made as concessions to further strengthen the bill as a whole and to make its passage through the legislature as fast as possible.

Eden also said student journalists at Kirkwood would begin an effort to publicize the the bill, and that the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has expressed interest in doing so as well. Efforts for the past legislation included positive testimony from Eden and Cathy Kuhlmeier Frey, who as a high school editor was lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier case.

Otto Fajen, legislative director for the Missouri National Education Association, said he had issues with the last iteration of the bill. This time around, Fajen said the bill’s added protections against retaliation make it more acceptable to his members.

“That was the missing piece last year,” Fajen said. “We felt like that we wanted to make sure that when they’re doing this, we’re also making sure that our folks – my members – don’t get caught in the middle between administrators who want to hold things up and our people who want to what the law says, encourage inquiry, you know, good work by students. We want to support that.”

Missouri has a long history with journalism. The bill’s namesake, broadcast legend Walter Cronkite, was born in St. Joseph, Missouri, in 1916. Seven decades later, in St. Louis County, the Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood that student media was subject to fewer First Amendment protections than individual students.

More recently, Missouri became a flashpoint in the free speech debate when student and faculty protesters at the University of Missouri refused to allow student journalists near them. In the aftermath of the 2015 protests, a Missouri legislator even introduced a bill that would require college students to take a class on free speech.

Last year’s bill was modeled after North Dakota’s John Wall New Voices Act. This time around, while retaining elements of that bill, Bergland says HB 441 also cribs from neighboring Kansas’ Student Publications Act, which governor Joan Finney signed into law three years after Hazelwood.

“Last year we modeled the bill after the North Dakota law, since that was the most recent one passed. But, this year we took more from the Kansas bill, since it borders us and addresses some of the [concerns] raised by school board, teacher and administrator groups,” Bergland, a Missouri Western journalism professor and adviser for The Griffon News, said in an e-mail.

Both Eden and Corlew remain confident the bill will be able to make it through the General Assembly and to the desk of first-term governor Eric Greitens. Corlew said he will work with the Senate to make the ride as smooth as possible.

With this bill, Missouri joins Indiana in the quest for New Voices legislation in 2017. If passed, Missouri would become the twelfth state, plus the District of Columbia, to adopt legal protections for high school students.

SPLC staff writer James Hoyt can be reached by email or (202) 478-1926.

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