California Senate passes press freedom bill

CALIFORNIA – A bill that would explicitly prohibit prior restraint and other forms of censorship of the college press is now sitting on California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk, having passed the state Senate by a 31-2 vote on August 10.

The bill was unanimously passed by the California Assembly in May.

Under California law, the governor has 12 days to sign or veto the bill. If he fails to do either, the bill becomes law without his signature.

AB 2581, sponsored by assemblyman Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, was drafted in response to the Hosty v. Carter decision out of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, a supporter of the bill.

That decision held that the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood decision limiting high school student free expression rights could extend to college and university campuses in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. The U.S. Supreme Court decided in February not to hear the Hosty case, letting stand the June 2005 decision out of the 7th Circuit.

Ten days after the 7th Circuit decision, the general counsel for the California State University system sent a memo to university presidents saying the Hosty decision could impact California.

“[T]he case appears to signal that CSU campuses may have more latitude than previously believed to censor the content of subsidized student newspapers, provided that there is an established practice of regularized content review and approval for pedagogical purposes,” wrote CSU general counsel Christine Helwick at that time.

Although the 7th Circuit’s ruling is only applicable in the three Midwestern states covered by the appeals court, Ewert said the memo raised some concerns amongst student press advocates in the Golden State. California has had a law on the books since 1992 prohibiting public colleges and universities from punshing students for expression that would be protected by the First Amendment if it occurred off campus, but that law didn’t explicitly mention protections for the students press.

“Ordinarily we wouldn’t be that concerned about a 7th Circuit decision,” Ewert said. “[The memo] just sent ripples throughout the student press. We thought it might be a good idea to ask the legislature to [explicitly] extend the speech protection that exists in the law now to student publications.”