Cronkite New Voice Act Gives Protection Against Censorship For Student Journalists


Missouri State Capitol Building in Jefferson City, MO. Young Republicans and Democrats took a field trip to the state capital. (Photo by Kyle Dearing)

By Sami Schmid, Newspaper staffer

The Cronkite New Voices Act is in its second go at being passed by the Missouri legislature. New Voices is legislation that gives student journalists freedom from censorship and undoes the effects of the previous decision made in the Hazelwood V. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court case.

“Any bill that can negate Hazelwood is a win for scholastic journalism programs,” Mitch Eden, Kirkwood High School journalism adviser and president of the Missouri Journalism Education Association, said. “We need it because we need to make sure students know their voice matters and their voice is important, and we need to really have legislation that protects their First Amendment rights.”

Robert Bergland, journalism adviser at Missouri Western University, is the leading advocate of the bill in Missouri. In 2016, he contacted both Rep. Elijah Haahr to sponsor the bill and Eden for support from the Missouri Journalism Education Association. The previous version of the bill passed through the House and went on to be passed by the Senate Education Committee, but did not get brought before the Senate. This year, the bill has passed the House Rules Committee and is now moving on to the full House for a vote. Before this point, they continued to work on the bill with a new sponsor, Rep. Kevin Corlew, and made some revisions to it that gained the endorsement of the Missouri National Education Association. The revisions include protections for schools, colleges, administration and advisers from legal liability for their students’ speech in school-associated publications.

“Honestly, I think the process had just made the bill stronger,” Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said. “I think it’s actually been improved by the input of those who commented at the Senate committee.”

Due to the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court case in 1987, administrators are allowed to determine what content is acceptable in school-affiliated press. Many states are in the process of changing that standard, and 11 have already passed legislation giving student journalists more rights. The most recent movement started when North Dakota passed the John Wall New Voices Act.

“I think that we’ve seen a generational change in the people running state legislatures, and people who have grown up using the internet have realized the futility and uselessness of censorship,” LoMonte said. “I think that’s the single greatest asset that we have: much more tech-savvy legislators that realize it is not possible in the 21st century to keep people from talking about the issues they care about. You can’t hold that ocean back with your fingers, and it’s a much better educational practice to invite the discussion of sensitive issues into the supervised and accountable newsroom.”

The Hazelwood case involved a school principal having students leave stories about teen pregnancy and divorce out of the newspaper due to concerns about privacy for the pregnant teens and appropriateness of the subjects. Students from the school took the situation to court, saying their rights were violated. Cathy M. Frey (Kuhlmeier), one of the students who went to court in the Hazelwood case, stays active in fighting for student journalists’ rights. She believes the Supreme Court’s decision would have been different had there been a different lawyer on the case and if more of her story had been brought to the justices’ attention. According to Frey, the students whose privacy the principal questioned had both given parent consent and had written consent to be quoted in the paper. They also changed the names of the students in question and the same topic had previously been published in their paper seven to eight years prior.

“I found it strange that it was OK to run those articles before the new administration at the school said it was not OK,” Frey said. “I think had those things been brought up to the justices I really think they would have had a different opinion. A lot of those things aren’t in those textbooks that you’re reading or lectures that you’re hearing.”

Many people involved in student journalism such as LoMonte, Frey, Eden and Bergland advocate for the bill and are dedicated to getting it passed in Missouri.

“It would send a really strong symbolic message to the rest of the country that Missouri has decided to leave that old outdated standard in the dust,” LoMonte said.