A new bill, pending deliberation in the Missouri State Senate, could limit the ability of administrators to censor student journalists. This bill passed in the House in March, but still has not been brought up in the Senate. A similar bill passed through the House last year, but ultimately failed to reach discussion in the Senate.
This bill was brought into discussion after six high school student journalists in Kansas exposed the false credentials of their school’s newly hired principal. Kansas passed its version of this bill in 1997.
The current law, as it stands in Missouri, gives administrators the right to censor “sensitive material” in student publications. The 1988 Hazelwood decision set the precedent for these restrictions. The administration at East Hazelwood High School instructed their student publication to not publish two articles regarding divorce and teen pregnancy. Despite changing the names of the students in the article, the principal still did not allow for their publication. After going to the Supreme Court, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier ultimately decided that students’ First Amendment rights are not violated by administrative censorship.
Missouri House Bill 441, colloquially called the Cronkite New Voices Act, strives to eliminate some of the vagueness that is in the current bill. It will apply only to content available to the entire student body in public high schools and higher institutions.
The bill lays out specific guidelines for when an administrator can and cannot censor content. Under this law, the school administration can refuse to publish content if they believe it to be libel or slander, an invasion of privacy, a violation of federal or state law or if it could incite students to violate school policy. The bill also states that the review of content by administrators before publication does not infringe on students’ first amendment rights, and the administrator can provide suggestions to present the material in a more professional way. It does not allow for the censorship of material based on the inclusion of sensitive or controversial topics.
HB 441 also provides instructions for administrative involvement beyond the content of the publication. Administrators can control how often the publication is produced, the format it will be produced in and how the publication will be structured. Student journalists will still maintain control of the news content and editorials published.
If this bill is passed, schools would not be able to discipline either the students or the advisors for publishing content that is deemed acceptable under the standards proposed in HB 441. The school district and the administration would not be held liable for the publication if lawsuits arise. Instead, this burden would be placed on the student journalists if they are over 18.
Ultimately, this bill calls for each school district to establish a written policy to define their own regulations and specifications for what is considered reasonable and appropriate.