Government & Politics

Student journalists speak up for Missouri bill that would shield them from censorship

Missouri legislation named after Walter Cronkite would prohibit school districts or administrations from censoring student journalists at public high schools and higher education institutions unless the content is deemed libelous, an invasion of privacy, incites violence, violates school policies or is disruptive.
Missouri legislation named after Walter Cronkite would prohibit school districts or administrations from censoring student journalists at public high schools and higher education institutions unless the content is deemed libelous, an invasion of privacy, incites violence, violates school policies or is disruptive. AP file photo

Opioids, race and politics are some of the topics Kirkwood High School senior Camille Baker has led coverage of as her school newspaper’s editor in chief.

She’s lucky enough to have the support of her school’s leaders. But she realizes her peers across the state may not have the same freedom.

On Wednesday, she testified before a Missouri House committee in support of a bill that would prohibit a school’s administration from censoring student journalists.

The Cronkite New Voices Act, named after historic anchor Walter Cronkite, a Missouri native, would prohibit school districts or administrations from censoring student journalists at public high schools and higher education institutions unless the content is deemed libelous, an invasion of privacy, incites violence, violates school policies or is disruptive.

The legislation is part of a nationwide campaign by the Student Press Law Center, a nonprofit that advocates for student journalists. State Rep. Kevin Corlew, a Kansas City Republican sponsoring the bill, spoke about the importance of student journalists’ work, citing Pittsburg, Kan., students whose reporting caused their principal to resign.

“As much as we who are in the public eye may get frustrated with the press, we have to realize that journalists serve a purpose of providing information so that the citizenry can hold their government accountable,” Corlew said.

This is the third year a bill has been proposed. In previous years, the bill easily cleared the House but never got much momentum in the Senate.

Corlew said he’s confident this year’s bill will get traction in the Senate.

“We put in some additional protections for teachers and administrators,” he said. “We made sure to specify what types of themes fell out of the realms of freedom, whether it be invasion of privacy, libelous statements or things of that nature.”

Mitch Eden, media adviser from Kirkwood High School in the St. Louis suburbs, helped shape the legislation and testified on behalf of the Journalism Education Association.

“(It’s) kind of ridiculous,” Eden said. “We’re surrounded. All of our neighboring states have passed legislation to give students and advisers their First Amendment rights and protect them, and we’re kind of the island in the middle.”

If the bill passes, Missouri would become the 15th state to pass protections for student journalists from censorship, according to the New Voices’ website. Kansas passed a similar law in 1992, but it pertains only to high school students.

It would also make history by getting the state out from under the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the 1988 Hazelwood (Mo.) School District v. Kuhlmeier case, in which the court ruled that high school students’ First Amendment rights were not violated when their principal withheld articles on teen pregnancy and divorce from publication.

“This would be a huge symbolic victory nationwide if Missouri can topple Hazelwood,” Eden said. “If Missouri can, then I think any state can.”

Student journalists who testified Wednesday spoke of the value of being able to hold frank discussions about issues they’re facing as teens.

Isaiah Bryant, a senior and managing editor of the news website for Francis Howell North High School in St. Charles, said the ability to report without censorship helped his paper generate a conversation about suicide awareness.

“In the last three years, I have seen regular students I have known my entire life write hard-hitting stories about subjects that affect teenagers everyday — subjects that would be deemed inappropriate and censored by most administrations,” Bryant said. “They are things that kids are talking about on the daily though, and the journalism program has worked to make these students feel comfortable and more informed on the subject, or even shown them that they are not alone and can get help.”

At Kirkwood High School’s paper, Baker said, editorial independence led to students speaking openly about their opinions. The paper published an opinion piece by an African-American student that used the n-word because it addressed why it’s OK for some groups to use the slur and not others. While Baker and her staff discussed the piece with their principal, the decision was theirs to make.

“We made the decision to allow the writer to use the word in it because we believe she has a voice that was relevant to hear and it was something that students outside in the hallways will continue to talk about regardless,” Baker said.

No one testified in opposition of the bill at Wednesday’s hearing.

Baker said journalism has helped her find her voice.

“If our rights were to be cut off or if we were to be limited in what we can pursue,” she said, “that’s something that would hinder our growth as students and our growth as people.”

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