As Kansas celebrates the successful takedown of an allegedly unaccredited principal by six student journalists, Missouri lawmakers have been working on legislation that would give Missouri students the same journalistic protections as their peers across the state line.
The bill, which passed out of the House in March, would expand the freedom of student journalists by placing stricter limits on the kinds of content that administrators are allowed to restrict in student publications. It now awaits debate in the Senate.
Kansas adopted these protections for student journalists in 1992.
Rep. Kevin Corlew, a Kansas City Republican who sponsored the bill, said the additional protections show student journalists that their First Amendment rights matter.
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“I think it’s important that we have active truth finders and fact finders,” Corlew said. “And student journalists are learning that.”
The current law, which allows administrators to censor anything that they consider to be “sensitive material,” was established by a landmark Missouri case that made it up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The 1988 Hazelwood decision determined that public school students do not have full First Amendment rights in school-sponsored publications.
Almost 30 years later, Missouri is looking to change that.
Sandy Davidson, a lawyer and professor of communications law at the University of Missouri, said legislators have the power to grant additional protections to students that are not outlined in the Supreme Court decision.
“Sometimes I think that just having a statement can make kind of an atmosphere difference, even if the legal machinery is not optimum,” Davidson said. “Having the legislature make a statement saying that free speech for students in the state of Missouri is important will be a contribution.”
The bill outlines a few exemptions that would permit censorship of student work: stories that are libelous, invade privacy, violate law or incite a clear and present danger.
Davidson said that while the bill is not a fail-safe, it does create leeway for both high school and collegiate journalists.
“This law perhaps could give a little bit of breathing space for student journalists,” Davidson said.
That’s breathing space that Mitch Eden, newspaper adviser for The Kirkwood Call at Kirkwood High School in St. Louis County, said is essential for both students and advisers.
Eden, who brought a group of high school students to testify in favor of the bill a few weeks ago, said he frequently hears about censorship issues from advisers at other high schools. Without First Amendment protections for students, Eden said, journalism programs die.
“The worst type of censorship is self-censorship, when the kids say, ‘Oh, we could never do that,’ and the program dies,” Eden said. Then “they’re producing scrapbooks for yearbooks and their newspapers are PR.”
He also said that censorship discourages students from pursuing careers in journalism.
Corlew said he hopes his bill changes that.
“I think it will show that we think that (journalism) is a very important career to go into,” Corlew said. “Not only as a career but as a function of our democracy.”
This is the second time Missouri has considered this bill. Last year, the bill garnered support from Tim Tai, a University of Missouri student who made it into the national spotlight when an MU faculty member, Melissa Click, tried to prevent him from photographing campus protests.
The bill made it out of the House but was never debated on the Senate floor.
There is a national movement pushing states to adopt these additional media protections for students. So far, at least 11 states have adopted some form of additional protection for student journalists.
Corlew said he’s optimistic the bill will receive support in the Senate. Eden, who has been advocating for this sort of protection for years, said he, too, remains hopeful.
“I think the state can send a very strong message to scholastic journalism students and advisers that we value the First Amendment and we believe in you,” Eden said. “We’re going to give them hope that they can actually thrive in their schools’ journalism programs.”