December 4, 2016

New law aims to protect student journalists

Every journalist worries about the impact their reporting could have on their financial situation, but nowhere is that fear stronger than for high school and college-student journalists. One piece of legislation in Missouri is aiming to alleviate that concern.

On Feb. 7, Missouri’s state legislature began considering the Walter Cronkite New Voices Act, a bill that would protect journalists at public colleges and universities from censorship by school administrators.

This proposal comes at a time when the abridgement of student press freedoms is in the news. At the private Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland, students reported the story of a school administrator using harsh language about incoming students, describing them as “bunnies who needed to be drowned.” The New York Times reported that the university was not pleased, and the newspaper’s faculty advisor, Ed Egan, was fired.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review, student journalists at the public University of Kansas have filed a lawsuit alleging their content led to their budget being severely cut. The student senate cut their funding by $45,000 per year after they published an editorial criticizing student government election procedures.

Both examples illustrate the dangers of reporting on student newspapers, where publications are funded and staffed by the very institutions they seek to report on. The Missouri proposal aims to maintain some independence between the two.

GRAPHIC BY: Sarah Blankenship

GRAPHIC BY: Sarah Blankenship

“Missouri is the home of one of the world’s most famous and iconic journalists in Walter Cronkite, but also the home of the Hazelwood decision that saw the rights of student journalists suppressed,” the bill’s sponsor, Republican Elijah Haahr, said in a statement.

“Hazelwood” refers to the Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier. In the landmark decision, the court ruled that the Missouri high school Hazelwood East was allowed to remove pages from its student newspaper without the approval or knowledge of the student journalists. The case has been considered an endorsement of the idea that students have lesser First Amendment rights.

That idea has been deeply damaging. Censorship of student journalists prevents them from reporting on important stories and holding school officials accountable. It also underlines the idea that students’ rights as citizens are less important than the whims of their schools.

Perhaps equally important, it ensures that many future journalists will be educated in a space where they are led to expect censorship of their work from people in power, setting them up to accept erosion of press freedoms rather than defend against them.

The Walter Cronkite New Voices Act is an important step towards fixing those problems.

In some ways, the act does not go far enough. The legislation relates only to “public institutes of higher education” – a category that does not include high school students, nor students at private universities like Webster. Even if this law were passed, policies like those in the Hazelwood case could remain unchanged.

The law also does not necessarily protect students from financial retaliation from displeased school officials. What it can do is begin a cultural change. As student journalists, what we do is political. We serve as the watchdogs for organizations that deeply impact the  lives of young people, and often cover stories that other media is not interested in. We should no more accept that our reporting can be censored by school officials than professional journalists would accept theirs being susceptible to prior review by government officials.

Students have rights, and that includes the freedom of the press. If schools are not willing to protect those rights, the law should.

Editors Note: Clarification. The New Voices bill would change the Hazelwood policies at the high school level. 

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