JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — A Missouri lawmaker is touting a bill he said will protect the state's student journalists from censorship, written in part as a response to a recent confrontation between a University of Missouri assistant professor and a student videographer during protests on campus.
The measure by Republican Rep. Elijah Haahr, of Springfield, would prohibit public K-12 schools and colleges from blocking articles or other content created by students, with some standard exceptions — content that's slanderous, libelous, breaks laws or is an invasion of privacy.
"I think it's time that Missouri becomes known as a state that values free speech, especially for student journalists," Haahr said before a Monday House hearing on the legislation.
The bill is partly a means of addressing the confrontations that received widespread attention, Haahr said, although he first was prompted by a college journalism professor from his alma mater.
On Nov. 9, there were protests on the Columbia campus over what some saw as university leadership's indifference to racial issues. Video shot by student Mark Schierbecker showed Janna Basler, who works in the university's office of Greek life, telling photographer Tim Tai, a student freelancing for ESPN, to "leave these students alone" in their "personal space." Moments later, Melissa Click, an assistant communications professor, confronted Schierbecker and called for "muscle" to help remove him.
Click was suspended and reached a deal with prosecutors to do community service instead of facing charges. Basler was placed on administrative leave for more than a month before returning to work in December.
Tai said while the measure would not have applied to his interaction with Basler, he's backing the bill because "it's about greater rights for student journalists in Missouri."
"What better way for student journalists to learn than when they're responsible for exercising their own editorial judgments and confronting ethical conflicts and taking responsibility for these decisions?" Tai said during the hearing. "But as we have seen at MU and many other schools, not every administrator or faculty member fully understands the protections enshrined in the First Amendment."
The bill also exempts reporting that "so incites students as to create a clear and present danger of the commission of an unlawful act, the violation of school district policy, or the material and substantial disruption of the orderly operation of the school." Similar rules would apply to student reporting at the state's colleges, and Haahr said there are differences in case law between how incidents in high school and college are handled.
Haahr said he also was motivated by a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a case from Hazelwood, Missouri, that gave public school officials power to censor student newspapers. The court said a high school principal didn't violate students' rights when he barred publication of two articles on teen pregnancy and divorce.
"We weren't given the chance to learn what it's really like to be a journalist because we weren't allowed to print stories that were relevant to an ongoing problem at the school," said Cathy Kuhlmeier Frey, a student plaintiff in the Hazelwood case. "Instead, we were told that the stories were too mature for an immature audience."
She said the case discouraged her from pursuing journalism professionally.
Missouri School Boards' Association chief of staff Brent Ghan told The Associated Press the measure could "remove the ability of teachers and administrators to do their job in terms of providing education to students." He raised questions about whether the legislation could prevent educators from giving guidance on the content of a story and how it's written.
"For a teacher to exercise oversight or educational guidance over a school-sponsored publication is not a lot different than an editor or a publisher in a newspaper setting also having that sort of oversight over what's being reported (and) the work that's being done by a reporter," Ghan said.
Haahr's measure is one of several this session that were proposed in response to turmoil at the Columbia campus. Another bill would require college students to take a class on freedom of speech.