State lawmakers to consider student free press legislation in 1999

Student free press legislation could see some new beginnings in 1999. Legislators in at least five states have indicated they will sponsor legislation in sessions this year that will counteract the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which cut back on the First Amendment protections given high school journalists.

In Illinois, Rep. Mary Lou Cowlishaw, R-Naperville, has said she plans to reintroduce a bill that overwhelmingly passed the state legislature in 1996 before being vetoed by then-Gov. Jim Edgar. Edgar did not run for reelection last November. Supporters of the legislation believe that the new governor, George Ryan, will have no objections to the bill, especially given that the Illinois School Management Alliance, the state coalition of school boards and administrators, has indicated it will not oppose the legislation in 1999.

“Everything looks good [for passage of legislation in 1999],” said James Tidwell, director of the Eastern Illinois High School Press Association.

If the legislation passes, Illinois would become the seventh state to enact student free expression legislation. The states that already have such laws are California, Massachusetts, Iowa, Colorado, Kansas and Arkansas, the most recent, which enacted its law in April 1995.

In addition to Illinois, legislators in Connecticut, Nebraska, Missouri and Michigan have agreed to support student free press bills in 1999.

With Hazelwood cutting back on the First Amendment rights of most high school student journalists, state laws have become an important source of legal protection. The First Amendment simply provides a “floor” of federal protection. The Supreme Court has ruled that states can always provide more free speech protection to its citizens if it chooses, which is exactlty what state lawmakers have done in those states that have passed these so-called anti-Hazelwood laws.