Missouri scraps student press freedom bill for third year in a row

MISSOURI—The Missouri Senate killed House Bill 1940, also known as the Cronkite New Voices Act, by not voting on it before the legislative session ended on May 18.

This marks the third consecutive year Missouri’s student press freedom bill has passed the House and a Senate committee only to stall out without ever going to a full Senate vote.

READ MORE: New Voices bill clears Missouri House, heads to the Senate

HB 1940, whose primary sponsor was Rep. Kevin Corlew, R-Kansas City, would have protected editorial freedoms for public high school and college media publications, excluding libelous and violent speech or advertisements of illegal products. It was part of the New Voices campaign, a nationwide movement to protect student journalists from censorship.

The bill showed initial promise in 2018 after easily clearing the House in February and passing the Senate Education Committee in April. 

READ MORE:  Missouri New Voices bill passes Senate committee (for the third year in a row)

Corlew, already worried it would stall in the Senate, added it as an amendment to education bill SB 743, hoping that would improve the odds of passing it. But legislators later stripped it off the education bill.

Missouri joins three other states that tried and failed to pass student press freedom legislation in 2018: Nebraska, South Dakota, and Indiana. Bills in New York and New Jersey are pending, while SB 5064 passed in Washington state.

Missouri Press Association Executive Director Mark Maassen expressed “concern and disappointment” with HB 1940’s outcome. Maassen testified on behalf of versions of this bill multiple times.

“[New Voices] is trying to bring normal, typical, journalistic principles to a student newspaper. It’s not trying to allow them unbelievable freedom or a carte blanche to do anything they want.”

“It’s unfortunate that this bill hasn’t passed with all the efforts that have been put forth the last three years,” Maassen said. 

Maassen thinks legislators don’t understand the true purpose of the bill. “What we are trying to do is allow student newspapers to have the same editorial principles as what any other newspaper would have,” he said. 

Maassen said more communication with legislators will help New Voices pass next year. He plans on meeting with senators who sided against the bill to explain why it is not a threat to school administrations.

“[New Voices] is trying to bring normal, typical, journalistic principles to a student newspaper,” Maassen said. “It’s not trying to allow them unbelievable freedom or a carte blanche to do anything they want. I think that is the fear of some legislators.”

Because New Voices campaigns are led by grassroots organizers, it can take years for bills to gain enough momentum to pass in certain states. Fern Valentine, a now-retired journalism teacher, pursued a student press rights bill for 26 years in Washington state until SB 5064 passed in March 2018.

READ MORE: Washington becomes the 14th state to protect the rights of student journalists 

Mitch Eden, the student media adviser at Kirkwood High School, testified at the Senate Education Committee hearing on March 27 in support of New Voices. Camille Baker, one of the editors-in-chief for Eden’s school paper, The Kirkwood Call, also testified in January at the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee. 

Eden agrees with Maassen on why the bill didn’t pass. “[Legislators] were misinformed,” Eden said. “We cannot educate everyone enough on the bill. On the history of student press rights.”

Eden says they’ll be back at it trying to pass New Voices next year. “We’re 0 for 3, we’ve struck out. We get a new at–bat.”

SPLC staff writer Gabriel Greschler can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318. He is on Twitter @ggreschler.