ILLINOIS — Gov. Jim Edgar (R) may be close to signing an amendment to the state’s School Code that would guarantee greater rights for high school student journalists in the state. If the bill is signed, Illinois will become the seventh state to adopt a free expression law for students.
Illinois legislators have been trying for eight years to pass student free expression legislation. After the measure died in committee in 1989 and was blocked by the Senate’s Republican majority in 1993, Rep. Mary Lou Cowlishaw (R-Naperville) reintroduced the Illinois Student Publications Act this year and the House approved it on April 14 by an overwhelming 109-4 vote. On May 15 the bill, sponsored by Sen. Kathy Parker (R-Northfield) passed the Senate unanimously, 57-0.
Given the number of votes by which the bill passed in both the House and the Senate, Cowlishaw called the bill “very, very veto-proof.” She said, “It’s kind of hopeless [for Edgar] to run around vetoing things” when they have been passed by overwhelming majorities.
According to Mary Dixon of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, the bill has until June 15 to reach Edgar’s desk. From that point, the governor has 60 days to act. Dixon predicted that the governor probably will not “get to it right away,” but also noted that no groups had expressed opposition to the bill’s signing.
“We’re going to give it a full court press to get people to let him know to sign it,” Dixon said.
The Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Journalism Education Association (IJEA) have also offered their support of the bill and Dixon said that the latter group “will be taking the lead in asking him to sign it.”
Even if Edgar were to veto the bill, Cowlishaw expressed optimism that the bill has enough support in the legislature to override a veto. In Illinois, it requires a three-fifths vote in the House and the Senate to override.
The bill provides that “public high school students have freedom of expression through speech and press and that, subject to certain limitations, expressions contained in a high school newspaper shall not be subject to prior restraint, and would authorize proceedings for injunctive or declaratory relief to secure such rights.” The amendment to the School Code would create stronger free press protections than Illinois students have had since the 1988 Hazlewood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision.
The bill does not include an effective date, meaning that if Edgar signs the bill, it will not take effect until January 1, 1998. Since part of the legislation mandates that schools develop their own free expression policies, Cowlishaw intentionally left out an effective date, saying that schools should have a few months to examine the new law and so that they can create their own statements.
While there was little debate on Cowlishaw’s bill in either the House or the Senate, there is no guarantee that the measure will pass. A column by Dennis Byrne in the Chicago Sun-Times on June 3 criticized the bill, calling it an effort to “turn on its head the principle that students are in school to learn, and teachers to teach.” Byrne drew several analogies such as “Stripping school authorities of control of the school paper is akin to the Legislature passing a law that lets the high school football team decide whether to play with helmets.”
In a response letter to The Sun-Times, Randy Swikle, past president of the IJEA, and James Tidwell, IJEA executive secretary, attempted to clarify the bill’s intentions and criticized Byrne’s belittling of student journalism. The authors of the letter asserted in their response that “Byrne misses the mark” by not seeing the distinction between a privately owned publication and a high school newspaper. The letter reads, “Public school administrators are government employees, and when high school principals censor student expression, they act as government censors.” Swikle and Tidwell emphasize the need for protection against “arbitrary censorship” and the benefits of “clear guidelines” to both administrators and students.
Cowlishaw said that she hopes Edgar will examine the bill’s widespread support in the legislature and overlook arguments like Byrne’s. In her fourteenth year as a representative in Springfield, Cowlishaw became involved in the development of the Illinois Student Publications Act when a high school in her district suffered from an incident of censorship.
Before putting together an actual bill, Cowlishaw — who holds a degree in journalism — created an ad-hoc committee that included publishers from major newspapers in the Chicagoland area. At a public hearing, student journalists from across the state testified about the problems they had experienced.
“After all these students told their horror stories,” said Cowlishaw, “[the committee] saw there was a real problem out there that needed to be fixed.”
If Edgar signs the bill this summer, Illinois will join Arkansas, California, Colorado, Iowa, Kansas and Massachusetts as states that have passed free expression legislation to protect the high school press.