At the end of my sophomore year at Charleston High School, I signed up for journalism class.

At the time, only juniors and seniors could be in the class, which produced both the school newspaper and the yearbook. 

When junior year began, there I was, fresh-faced and ready to roll. I figured I’d be in that class for the next two years. It didn’t work out that way, but that’s a different story, one involving a senior journalism student, along with myself and a few others, who decided to start a competing newspaper completely supported by local advertising. I was not asked back the next year.

Looking back at those early days and the mild uproar we caused with our professionally produced newspaper, it’s apparent that the biggest problem the school’s staff had with or project is that they had no control over what we produced.

We chose our own stories, did our own editing and design and even secured a printer, whose fees were paid by the aforementioned ads. We ran circles around the actual school newspaper.

We never did report on anything scandalous or inappropriate, but the school was afraid that we would. As a result, the people in charge decided to ban our newspaper from campus and cut us from the journalism class.

It wasn’t long after all this that I got my first real newspaper job, working as a stringer covering high school sports for the weekly newspaper in Charleston, the Enterprise-Courier. Here I would meet my first professional mentor, Jim Anderson, and learn those immortal words that have guided me so well: “Don’t write a game story that takes longer to read than it takes to use the bathroom.”

I paraphrased a bit, but you get the point.

I don’t think I would have gotten that job if it hadn’t been for my misadventures in high school journalism and I don’t think those would have even happened if I and some of my fellow students hadn’t become disgruntled with the restrictions imposed by the school administration. Which brings me to my point.

Two identical bills recently introduced in the Missouri House of Representatives, one sponsored by Phil Christofanelli, R-St. Peters, and the other by Craig Fishel, R-Springfield, aim to establish the “Cronkite New Voices Act” — named after Missouri native Walter Cronkite (one of my personal heroes) — to provide some protection for student journalists.

The bills, which will be combined into one with Fishel as the sponsor, are intended to ensure that student journalists in both public high schools and public colleges and universities will have the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media.

Now, that’s not to say that school districts and student-media advisors won’t have any control. Someone has to be in charge.

The most important part is that the bill forbids school districts from “prior restraint of school-sponsored media except in circumstances specified in the bill.”

Basically, the bill would prohibit school districts or administrations from exercising prior restraint by censoring student journalists unless the content is deemed libelous, an invasion of privacy, incites violence, violates school policies or is disruptive.

The first hearing on the bill was held last week before the House General Laws Committee. Among the eight people who offered supporting testimony was Mitch Eden, a media advisor at Kirkwood High School, who said, “this shouldn’t be a partisan issue; it’s about Freedom of Speech.”

Fourteen other states — including Arkansas, Illinois and Kansas — have already passed similar legislation which is aimed at overturning a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Hazelwood (Mo.) School District vs. Kuhlmeier, in which the court ruled that high school students’ First Amendment rights were not violated when their principal withheld articles on teen pregnancy and divorce from publication.

It’s the fourth time this bill has been introduced in the Missouri House. In all previous instances, the bill passed the House but stalled in the Senate.

Fishel, who was quoted in an article published by the Student Press Law Center, said the proposed law has been “fast-tracked” by House Speaker Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, who sponsored the original version of the bill four years ago. 

Eden, who was quoted in the same article, said administrators who regularly censor news are teaching students the wrong lessons.

“More than anything what I hate to see is the self-censorship component, when I show examples and we talk about it and kids go, ‘Well, we can never do that at our school,’ ” Eden said.

This bill would change that, giving our next generation a chance to learn the right lessons about the power — and responsibilities — of a free press.

I can only hope our state legislators, particularly in the Senate, see things the same way.

And maybe give more students a reason to stay in journalism class. 

Robert Cox is an award-winning columnist and the managing editor of the Republic-Monitor. Write to him at rcox@perryvillenews.com or P.O. Box 367, Perryville, MO 63775. He may be reached by phone at 573-547-4567.

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