JEFFERSON CITY — In the same state where a school district lost a Supreme Court case limiting student journalists' rights in 1988, legislators from the House of Representatives heard testimony on a bill that would restore those rights Wednesday.
The Walter Cronkite New Voices Act, originally proposed in 2016, prohibits schools from stopping the publication of student-created media, except in circumstances outlined in the bill, such as libel, invasion of privacy and unlawfulness.
Several student journalists testified on behalf of the legislation during the General Laws committee hearing Wednesday, including Jack Rintoul, the editor-in-chief of Kirkwood High School's student newspaper, The Kirkwood Call.
"Student journalists play a crucial role in their respective communities," Rintoul said during his testimony. "They serve as the news source for their school and make sure to keep school boards and administrative policies in check. They give students a voice and allow anyone to share their own story."
Faculty and media organizations also testified in support of those student journalists and their work, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and the Missouri Press Association .
"We're all worried about a climate of misinformation," said Mitch Eden, a Kirkwood journalism adviser. "The way we can combat this is by educating students to be media literate and by creating media that's genuine and well thought out."
Both Eden and Rintoul emphasized the bipartisan, constitutional nature of the legislation.
"This bill shouldn't be a partisan bill," Eden said. "It's freedom of speech."
Eden, when asked by Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, about the risk of students printing incorrect information, said part of the student journalism process is vetting and editing by faculty advisers like himself. He said there are no protections in the bill for libelous content or other violations of law.
This isn't the first time Eden and Rintoul have witnessed the bill going through hearings in the House. It has passed in consecutive sessions through the House with no issue but has been held up in the Senate due to details in the bill, as well as a bottleneck of legislation. This current version of the bill is identical in text to the version that passed the House last session.
Despite these past versions coming up short, Rintoul feels confident about the bill.
"I'm really passionate about the New Voices Act and student journalism in Missouri," he said. "I feel pretty optimistic that this is finally the year we'll be able to pass it."
If the bill passes through the both chambers and becomes law, Missouri would be the 15th state to enact protections for student journalists, with four other states also pending similar legislation. An MU freshman who benefitted from one such law in Kansas, Rachel Pickett, also testified in front of the committee.
"Because of (the Kansas Student Publication Act), which was passed 27 years ago in 1992, I was so fortunate to be able to find my voice with the encouragement and guidance of my newspaper editors," Pickett said.
Although some states, like Kansas, passed student journalist protection laws decades ago, the Walter Cronkite Free Voices Act originates from a national campaign from the Student Press Law Center. The "Walter Cronkite" part of the bill's title stems from the famous broadcaster's birthplace in Missouri.