Illinois swings… and misses

ILLINOIS — In a surprise move, Gov. Jim Edgar (R) vetoed an amendment to the state’s School Code Aug. 10 that would have guaranteed greater rights for high school student journalists in the state.House Bill 154 had met with little opposition in the legislature, raising the hopes of free press advocates.Rep. Mary Lou Cowlishaw (R-Naperville) introduced the Illinois Student Publications Act originally 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.Illinois legislators have been trying for eight years to pass student free expression legislation. The measure died in committee in 1989 and was blocked by the Senate’s Republican majority in 1993 before Cowlishaw reintroduced it this year.Edgar wrote in his veto message that he believed “the legislation creates a situation in which the entity ultimately responsible for the newspaper — the school board — cannot exercise full control over the paper’s content.”Mary Dixon of the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois said that with Edgar expressing the need for “total control,” little could have been done to save the bill.Dixon and Cowlishaw said that the U.S. Court of Appeals First Circuit’s decision in the case of Yeo v. Town of Lexington on June 6 had a damaging effect on the bill’s progress (See story, this issue).Although the June 6 court decision was withdrawn on June 27, the Illinois School Management Alliance (ISMA), an organization of school boards and administrators that had previously endorsed the Illinois measure, withdrew its support.The Yeo decision held that student newspapers do not have the right to refuse advertisements because the court concluded the newspaper to be a state actor. ISMA feared that this could mean Illinois schools would face greater liability concerns if the bill was signed.ISMA recommended that the bill at least be delayed until the Yeo case is reheard this fall.Cowlishaw said that despite what looked like tremendous support from both the House and Senate for the bill, she was still unsure of the chances that they could successfully override the veto.”This is not a bill with a lot of powerful constituencies,” Cowlishaw admitted. “Support is very wide, but it’s no thicker than a thin sheet of ice.”In Illinois, it requires a three-fifths vote in the House and the Senate to override. Cowlishaw said late October is the deadline to decide whether to file a motion to override.Cowlishaw said whether the answer is with a veto override or with introduction of a new bill next session, she is not ready to give up.The bill provided 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 bill would have created stronger free press protections than Illinois students have had since the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision.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 Chicago 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,” Cowlishaw said, “[the committee] saw there was a real problem out there that needed to be fixed.”Lobbyists, particularly from the Illinois Journalism Education Association, pressed hard for the governor to sign the bill during the summer. Dixon said numerous letters were sent to Edgar supporting the bill by members of the adviser’s group, the ACLU and the Illinois Federation of Teachers.James Tidwell, executive secretary of the IJEA, said that after all the hard work to move the legislation forward, the veto was “definitely discouraging.””It’s really bizarre — passing as overwhelmingly as it did [in the House and Senate], and now this happening,” Tidwell said.