New Free Speech Bill Protects Young Journalists
By: Tess Wilson
In 1987, a case was brought to the Supreme Court that threatened the First Amendment rights of young journalists. The case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, centered around two articles produced by high school journalists in St. Louis, MO. The articles in question dealt with teen pregnancy and divorce, two topics deemed inappropriate by the school principal.
Even though the student interviewees featured in the articles had agreed to be included, and names had been changed to protect anonymity, the administration felt that was insufficient and prohibited publication. Pages of the newspaper were eliminated, and articles were not circulated. Naturally, the young journalists who had poured their efforts and emotions into these articles considered this a blatant disregard of the right to free speech. Although the Eighth Circuit Court agreed that the students’ rights had been violated, the Supreme Court reversed this ruling. The case concluded in 1988, in favor of the school principal.
Now, 30 years later, a new bill — the Cronkite New Voices Act — aims to build a solid foundation of support for young journalists exercising their First Amendment rights. This bill, which was passed by the House of Representatives in late February, was championed by an organization called New Voices. This “student-powered grassroots movement” is an initiative of the Student Press Law Center that strives “to make schools and colleges more welcoming places for student voices.” An original version of the bill was introduced in 2016 by Rep. Elijah Haahr, but went through revisions before Rep. Kevin Corlew submitted a different version in 2017.
As it stands, House Bill 1940 “would guarantee freedom of the press in school-sponsored media for both public high schools and public colleges,” according to the Student Press Law Center. The few exceptions to this protection include libelous, violent, or threatening speech, and any speech that violates others’ rights or encourages illegal behavior. This version of the bill was met with support from the House of Representatives, succeeding by 109 votes.
One fascinating element of the long journey of the Cronkite New Voices Act has been the testimony and leadership of student journalists. Robert Bergland—a volunteer lending his efforts to the cause — and Mitch Eden — a journalism teacher at Missouri’s Kirkwood High and an advisor for The Kirkwood Call student newspaper — have invited many students to present their defense of First Amendment rights in front of the courts.
One Kirkwood Call editor-in-chief, Camille Baker, said, “We’re just going to keep fighting for it and keep our hopes up. We just don’t want to have to water it down anymore.”
Powerful testimonies from this case and others can be found at the New Voices site, and its State Tracker Map is a wonderful tool for keeping up with the progress of cases like this.
After its success in the House of Representatives, the Cronkite New Voices Act will now move up to the Missouri Senate. If it passes, Missouri will be the 14th state to pass a bill that restores First Amendment rights to students after Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier stripped them in 1988.
Tess Wilson works in the Job and Career Education Center at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, and at the Carnegie Free Library of Swissvale. Her writing can be found on the YALSA Blog, and on the Carnegie Library’s Eleventh Stack blog. She is a collector of everything from big dictionaries to small rocks, and her latest acquisitions were an MFA in Creative Writing of Poetry from Chatham University and an MLIS from the University of Pittsburgh. Find her on Twitter @tesskwg.