Finding true irony in life can be difficult. I think we can blame Alanis Morissette for a lot of that, and if you don’t get that reference, it’s because I’m quickly aging and losing relevant ones to use. Irony is often a misplaced term, but I’m pretty sure I experienced it last week.
I’ve been inundated with emails detailing bills being introduced into the Missouri House of Representatives for the legislation session that began last Wednesday. Most, I skim through and disregard, while others, like the ones initiated by local reps detailed in this issue, seem a little bit more relevant.
Yet, I found one last week that didn’t match either category I just mentioned yet still caught my attention. I was interested in this one for personal and professional reasons and made sure to soak in the details, one of which I found truly ironic. According to a release, Rep. Elijah Haahr of Springfield, Mo. wants to better protect the free speech rights of student journalists.
Haahr went so far as to put a fancy name on this legislation to link it to Missouri’s most famous professional newsman, dubbing it the Walter Cronkite New Voices Act, which hopes to ensure high school and college student reporters will be able to do their jobs without fear of censorship from administrators or teachers.
I have to say: I like this. A lot.
My own experiences as a student journalist, first at Platte County High School and later at Missouri Western State University, taught me the value in publishing without prior restraint and the ability to exercise free speech. It can be a dangerous enterprise, but being able to publish your work without fear of censorship from outside the organization you work for has merit, in my opinion.
For example, you can criticize and analyze the actions of government entities, as long as you avoid slander and libel and obey general journalism ethics. This is a good thing, a given freedom for larger media entities but occasionally more controlled in educational publications.
Modeled after a law passed in North Dakota, the Walter Cronkite New Voices Act would keep school authorities from exercising prior restraints over student media except when they are about to publish libelous or slanderous material, invade privacy, violate state or federal law or incite students to create a clear and present danger to the institution. It also would restrict authorities from disciplining student journalists or controlling their activities outside of school.
“Missouri is the home of one of the world’s most famous and iconic journalists in Walter Cronkite, but also the home of the Hazelwood decision that saw the rights of student journalists suppressed,” Haahr said. “My hope is that we can reestablish Missouri as a place that supports the freedom of the press, and protects the rights of high school and college student journalists.”
The Missouri Journalism Education Association, the Missouri Press Association and the Missouri College Media Association all plan to support the bill and work to secure its passage. I see the benefit in teaching students to stand behind their work and make tough decisions, which will be useful if they decide to move forward in the profession.
Oh right. I almost forgot the irony.
I feel weird even bringing this up because I’ve always wanted to allow bygones to be bygones (another outdated term), but Haahr and I went to Missouri Western around the same time. I ran The Griffon News, the student newspaper, and he ran the Student Government Association, the student government, uh, association.
As I recall, Haahr had a flair for campaigning and civic duty, even then.
However, I also recall the time that Missouri Western brought in Bob Woodward, another famous journalist known for his role in breaking the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. This was part of the school’s annual convocation that invites students and the public to listen to a lengthy speech from a distinguished guest.
Plenty of pomp and circumstance for these occasions, and as SGA president, Haahr received a spot on the stage behind the podium along with other honored guests.
What happened next lives in Griffon News folklore to this day. Apparently tired from a night of studying, Haahr fell asleep on the stage during the speech, very conspicuously I might add. This did not go unnoticed and what transpired in the coming months was a back-and-forth criticism and defense of Haahr, including many words in the school newspaper on the matter.
I still remember running the headline, “HAAHR WILL NOT RESIGN.” I also remember lampooning him in at least one column and maybe some editorial cartoons that were probably my idea.
Haahr and I weren’t friends or even necessarily close acquaintances in school. I’d venture to guess that he could have done without my criticism and approach to the situation in The Griffon News. I don’t know that we ever really talked about it.
We both moved on to careers built on our educational experiences, and he clearly moved well past the “raging controversy” his unplanned nap caused at Missouri Western that spring. Haahr is now an attorney and a Republican representing the 134th District, which includes the southwestern portion of Springfield, Mo.
I can honestly say, whether he cares or not, that I’m proud of him, especially knowing that we were classmates in St. Joseph. I’m also glad that he understands the importance of student journalism and its role in training the next generation of newsmen and newswomen, even if that role allowed me to publish content without prior restraint that had some fun at his expense more than a decade ago.
This gave me a good laugh to myself that I’m sharing with you, which served as a reminder that I’m getting old and should probably be glad I’m not the guy I was in college anymore.
Ross Martin is publisher of The Citizen. He may be reached via email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Citizen_Ross.