Guest Commentary

Missouri can fix the Supreme Court’s mistake about freedom of the student press

As a result of a bizarre Supreme Court ruling, a student has a constitutionally protected right to wear a “Make America Great Again” hat to school — but not to publish a photo of that hat in the paper. We all know that makes no sense.
As a result of a bizarre Supreme Court ruling, a student has a constitutionally protected right to wear a “Make America Great Again” hat to school — but not to publish a photo of that hat in the paper. We all know that makes no sense. AP

There’s a lively debate in Kansas’ Shawnee Mission School District over whether school authorities went too far and violated students’ legal rights when they confiscated footage of a protest against gun violence.

That debate would never occur on the other side of the Missouri River, because in Missouri, student journalists have no meaningful rights.

That’s because, while Kansas lawmakers took a position of national leadership in 1992, enacting the Kansas Student Publications Act to protect the independence of student newsrooms, Missouri has failed on two recent attempts to pass a similar law.

The third try — the Cronkite New Voices Act, sponsored by Republican state Rep. Kevin Corlew — has overwhelmingly passed the state House (for the third year in a row), unanimously cleared the Senate Education Committee, and is sitting on the Senate calendar with just over a week remaining in the legislative session. The ball is sitting on the 5-yard-line, and it’s time for Missouri to punch it into the end zone.

Missouri is lagging behind Kansas because of an erroneous 30-year-old Missouri-based court ruling, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, that the state now has a chance to set straight. The U.S. Supreme Court said public schools can exercise near-total control over journalistic publications like the Spectrum newspaper at Missouri’s Hazelwood East High School, which was censored for publishing “racy” stories such as acknowledging the existence of an epidemic level of teen pregnancy (at a school where the problem was so acute that the school was forced to offer daycare).

As a result of the court’s bizarre ruling, student speech in public schools is highly protected — unless it’s in a news publication. A student has a constitutionally protected right to wear a “Make America Great Again” hat to school — but not to publish a photo of the hat in the paper. We all know that makes no sense.

The Hazelwood ruling left the door open for states to offer students more than the bare minimum of protection, and increasingly, states are doing so. With the recent addition of Washington, 14 states now have statutes assuring students that they, not government officials, get to decide what’s news, as long as they don’t break the law or incite students to act out disruptively.

Laws of this kind are passing with near-unanimous, bipartisan support in state after state, from the bluest (North Dakota) to the reddest (Rhode Island), and everywhere in between, because policymakers have figured out that student journalism has value worth protecting.

With professional newsroom employment at historic lows, students are often the information lifeline for their entire communities, providing coverage of education news that local newspapers no longer can. Communities can’t rely on coverage that’s been “sanitized” to portray only a favorable impression of schools.

Kansas has reaped the benefits of giving its students some modest level of autonomy. In addition to producing student journalism of eye-popping quality — recall the nationally publicized work of six high-school sleuths in Pittsburg, Kan., who uncovered their principal’s inflated educational credentials, leading to her removal — the Kansas law has bolstered students’ sense of community engagement.

Survey research by University of Kansas professor Peter Bobkowski documents that students who attend schools where First Amendment values are respected have a higher sense of “civic efficacy,” the confidence that they can use their voices to make change.

Laws like the Cronkite Act are safe, proven and effective, with more than 180 years of combined history across the country. They produce better journalism, because students go into the newsroom confident that the law protects them and their teachers against retaliation for unflattering coverage. That’s why every national organization involved in teaching and practicing journalism, including the American Society of News Editors and the Society of Professional Journalists, has called on states to abandon Hazelwood’s standard.

There will not be a Kansas City Star in the future if teenagers do not develop an interest in news. That starts with making news relevant and topical. Censorship does the opposite: It makes news frustrating and disempowering. That’s a recipe for civic disengagement.

There is no organized opposition to Missouri’s bill, it has overwhelming support that crosses ideological and partisan divides. Protecting the future of journalism in Missouri is simply a matter of Senate leaders deciding to make it a priority. A Missouri principal’s court case made image-motivated censorship legal in 1988. Missouri can right that wrong today.

Attorney Frank D. LoMonte is a professor of media law and a volunteer attorney with the Student Press Law Center, a Washington, D.C.-based advocate for student journalism.

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