Cronkite New Voices Act would help ensure press rights for students in Missouri

Feb 1, 2016

A bill in the Missouri House that seeks to ensure First Amendment rights for student journalists received overwhelming support in a hearing Monday night. The so-called Walter Cronkite New Voices Act would require public schools and universities to grant student journalists the same degree of free speech they would a professional journalist.

The bill was introduced a week after University of Missouri professor Melissa Click was charged with third-degree assault for her interactions with journalists during protests on Mizzou’s campus last fall.

Click called for “some muscle” to remove student photographers as they attempted to approach Concerned Student 1950 activists. Her actions were recorded on video by one of those students, which sparked a nationwide conversation on freedom of speech in school settings.

Tim Tai is a student photo-journalist who was on assignment for ESPN seen in that video. He traveled to the Capitol Monday evening to testify for the bill.

“I’m here to talk about press freedom, which is not and should not be a partisan issue,” said Tai. “For years, student reporters have been treated as second-class journalists, and that’s a shame because they are often the only ones tackling crucial issues in schools and on campuses.”

Cathy Kuhlmeier, a plaintiff of the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier case, also testified in support of the bill.

Kuhlmeier was a student editor for her high school newspaper when the school’s principal pulled articles on teenage pregnancy and alcohol addiction from the presses. Kuhlmeier filed suit, but the Supreme Court ruled that school administrators have the right to exercise prior restraint of school-sponsored publications.

Kuhlmeier explained that the Hazelwood ruling hinders the ability of  journalists-in-training to be presented with the ethical and editorial challenges they will face in their careers.

“We weren’t given the chance to learn what it’s really like to be a journalist, because we weren’t allowed to print stories that were relevant to an ongoing problem at the school,” said Kuhlmeier. 

Frank Lomonte, director of the Student Press Law Center, said Missouri is joining as many as 19 states in considering legislation that addresses free speech for students. 

“There are eight states that have a statute which reverses the impact of the Hazelwood decision,” Lomonte continued. “This is the decision in 1988 where the U.S. Supreme Court essentially unleashed an unlimited degree of censorship authority over what students publish in student media.”

Many believe the Hazelwood ruling rejected the Tinker standard, a 1969 Supreme Court case that established limitations on censorship of student speech. The Tinker ruling famously stated that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” 

No one spoke in opposition to the bill.

Mallory Daily is an intern in the Jefferson City bureau of St. Louis Public Radio. Follow on Twitter: @malreports