As many state legislatures begin their 2016 legislative sessions this month, lawmakers in Missouri and Nebraska have introduced important bills designed to protect student journalists from censorship.
The Missouri bill, the Cronkite New Voices Act introduced by State Representative Elijah Haahr, states in part:
3. Except as provided in subsection 4 of this section, a student journalist has the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media, regardless of whether the media is supported financially by the school district or by use of facilities of the school district or produced in conjunction with a class in which the student is enrolled. Subject to subsection 4 of this section, a student journalist is responsible for determining the news, opinion, feature, and advertising content of school-sponsored media. This subsection shall not be construed to prevent a student media advisor from teaching professional standards of English and journalism to student journalists.
Section 4 sets out that the bill does not protect speech that is unprotected by the First Amendment.
Nebraska State Senator Al Davis introduced Legislative Bill 885, which contains substantially similar language to the bill pending in Missouri, but unlike the Missouri bill, LB 885 applies exclusively to postsecondary institutions.
Legislation protecting student journalists from censorship was made necessary by two legal decisions. In the 1988 case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the Supreme Court of the United States held that high school students’ First Amendment rights were not violated by the school exercising control over the content of a newspaper produced as part of a journalism course, “so long as [the school’s] actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit made matters much worse when it applied Hazelwood to college students in Hosty v. Carter (2005), allowing institutions of higher education in that circuit to censor adult journalists entitled to full First Amendment rights and regulate their reporting as though they were children.
As we’ve written on The Torch before, a free student press is exceedingly important, not just because it gives students a space to learn investigative and writing skills, but also because student newspapers often educate the broader community about matters of public concern. When student journalists cannot perform this function without the threat of punishment or censorship, the campus community can miss out on critical information.
FIRE hopes the Missouri and Nebraska bills pass so that student journalists in those states are guaranteed freedom from administrative censorship.