New Voices bill clears Missouri House, heads to the Senate

MISSOURI — The Walter Cronkite New Voices bill easily cleared a milestone Feb. 19, as it passed through the House of Representatives with heavy support, 129-20. The bill will now move to the state’s Senate — where it has stalled the last two years.

House Bill 1940 would guarantee freedom of the press in school-sponsored media for both public high schools and public colleges. Not all speech is protected under the bill. Exemptions include: speech that is libelous, incites violence, contains a threat, engages in illegal activity, violates the rights of others, advertises an illegal product, encourages breaking school policies or that disrupts the operation of the school.

New Voices is a student-powered movement to give student journalists protection from censorship. New Voices legislation has passed in 13 states.

Similar bills passed the Missouri House in past years, only to lose momentum in the Senate. In 2017, it passed the House 148-6 but never came up for a Senate vote. In 2016, it passed 131-12 but was never put on the Senate calendar

“It’s been frustrating for it to come so close ... then not to get a vote,” said Robert Bergland, one of the volunteer organizers behind the bill and a professor at Missouri Western State University.

The current bill was first read to the Senate on Feb. 19, and Bergland said he expects it will be referred to the Senate Education Committee, as it has been before.

In drumming up support for the bill, Bergland has worked alongside Mitch Eden, a journalism teacher and student media adviser at Kirkwood High School and the Dow Jones News Fund’s 2015 National High School Journalism Teacher of the Year. Bergland said they were the “dynamic duo” for Missouri New Voices. 

Over the last three legislative sessions, Eden has had three different editors-in-chief of The Kirkwood Call testify in front of legislators in support of the bill. He said he’s enjoyed getting to watch the students speak with “poignancy and passion” about an issue that affects them.

“[The bill] is to support the passions and the ideas of these students...who are being told their voices don’t matter,” he said.

Camille Baker — one of the editors-in-chief of The Kirkwood Call for the 2017-2018 school year — testified in front of the House’s Elementary and Secondary Education Committee in January. She said the experience was nerve-wracking, but the legislators seemed supportive during her testimony.

“They know that I’m a student, and that it’s students who are trying to get this passed,” she said.

Eden said he’s “more optimistic than ever” with the latest version of the bill. He said supporters have made a lot of concessions to appease opposing groups, but  thinks the bill is still solid.

Baker said she’s also optimistic, and has been trying to share the optimism with the Call’s staff.

“We’re just going to keep fighting for it and keep our hopes up,” Baker said. “We just don’t want to have to water it down anymore.”

Aaron Manfull, the director of student media at Francis Howell North High School and the digital media chair for the Journalism Education Association, said they’ve worked with teachers and administrators to make them comfortable with the bill and keep opposition to a minimum.

Manfull said he’s “cautiously optimistic” that the bill will succeed, though there is still a possibility that it gets pushed aside if the legislature prioritizes other issues.

“We feel pretty good with what we’ve heard from legislators ... but we also know it’s stalled in past years,” he said.

There are also concerns that Gov. Eric Greitens, a Republican who has had a contentious relationship with the media, may not sign the bill if it passes the Senate. But in 1991, then a senior at Parkway North High School, Greitens wrote an essay to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch supporting student press rights.

“Over the past two decades, however, a storm of protest, censorship and self-righteousness has begun to erode the liberties which are the basis for freedom of thought,” the future governor wrote, referring to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Hazelwood decision. “I am specifically concerned about the erosion of student rights protected under the First Amendment.”

SPLC staff writer Taylor Potter can be reached by email or at (202) 478-1926. He is on Twitter @wmtaylorpotter.

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