California Dreaming

Beaches, sunshine, Hollywood and earthquakes are all things people think about when they think of California. However, California has a lot more to offer students, especially student journalists, than a nice tan, say professionals in the state.

Student journalists in California have long enjoyed extensive free press protections. And if the state Legislature has its way, those freedoms may be expanded even more.

California’s response to Hosty

More than 2,000 miles away from the Golden State, a court case was decided that put into motion a piece of legislation that its sponsor says would make California the first state to  prohibit the censorship of college student newspapers under state law.

In February, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would not hear an appeal in Hosty v. Carter, a case that questioned the authority of administrators at an Illinois university to censor a student newspaper that had published articles critical of the school. The Court’s refusal means that an earlier decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that could limit college student journalists’ rights stands as law in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Ten days after the decision, the general counsel for the California State University system sent a memo to presidents of the system that included a discussion of the case’s possible impact on the state. 

This prompted the California College Media Association and the California Newspaper Publishers Association to take action. Both groups got behind a bill being sponsored by California assemblymen Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, and Joe Nation, D-Martin. AB 2581 would prohibit any administrator at public colleges within the state from exercising prior restraint on the student press. Prior restraint occurs when administrators censor student media before material is published or broadcasted.

“We in California have always believed that like high school newspapers, college newspapers were protected. Unfortunately the [Hosty decision] put into jeopardy that understanding,” Yee said. “When that court case came to light, I decided that we needed to get a bill signed by the governor that would codify that First Amendment protection for college newspapers.

“We’re trying to train young people to become adults who appreciate the First Amendment and their first message in college should not be about prior restraint – their first experience should not be about stifling the First Amendment, but to be supportive of it.”

The bill was unanimously passed by the California Assembly in May and passed the state Senate 31-2 Aug. 11. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger had 12 days to sign or veto the bill.

“[This bill] simply amends a law that’s been in place for about 20 years that already protects student speech, but [the bill] makes very clear that student publications are protected as well,” Ewert said.

The California State Student Association, the organization that represents California State University system students in the state Legislature, sent a representative to testify before a hearing in the California Assembly.

“The reason why the [CSSA board of directors] supports this bill is because we don’t think it’s appropriate for there to be prior restraint in the student newspapers,” said Laura Kerr, director of governmental affairs for the CSSA. “We believe that student newspapers should be protected under the First Amendment like any other form of press – it just doesn’t make sense to restrict student speech.”

Stopping newspaper theft

Another bill expected to be up for a vote in the state Senate after the summer recess is AB 2612, sponsored by assemblyman George Plescia, R-San Diego, Ewert said. The bill would make it a crime to take more than 25 copies of a free newspaper. If the bill is passed, newspaper thieves caught on their first offense could be charged with an infraction and up to a $250 fine. Thieves caught on their second and subsequent offenses could be charged with either an infraction or a misdemeanor. They may also be punished by up to a $500 fine and up to 10 days in a county jail, Ewert said. 

Ewert said that although police can currently prosecute newspaper thieves based on the value of the paper’s advertising, many have been reluctant to do so.

“Whether the papers are stolen because someone disagrees with the ideas expressed in them or they are used for recycling, readers are deprived of a valuable source of information and ideas,” said Morgan Crinklaw, press secretary for the California State Assembly Republican Caucus. “This bill outlines exactly what law enforcement needs to know to stop this kind of theft.”

Ewert said a majority of thefts of free newspapers occur on college campuses, but added the bill would also protect freely distributed community newspapers.

What sets California apart?

An old saying goes, “there must be something in the water.” That just may be the case in California when it comes to protecting the First Amendment.

“I think California is pretty open to protecting student rights, but also it is basically an advocate for the First Amendment,” said California College Media Association President Sylvia Fox. “We have an awful lot of rights in California, and I think we try very hard to protect these rights.”

Ewert said the number of student publications in the state might influence the state’s stance on the First Amendment.

“Because we are such a large state and because we have a lot of student publications, [CNPA] felt that in order for our industry to survive and compete that we needed to promote journalism at the high school and the college level,” Ewert said.

Fox agreed that the state’s size has an impact on its free speech policies.

“I just think we’re a huge state and we have the [University of California] school system which would certainly pride itself on the freedom of students to have a voice and to make their own decisions,” Fox said. “Then we have this huge California State University system in which everybody that I know, all the university presidents, have been advocates for student rights.”

Jennifer Scholtes, news editor at The Orion, the student newspaper at California State University at Chico, said she can tell a difference between how student journalists in California are treated compared to student journalists in other states when she attends newspaper conferences.

“One of the people [at a conference] was saying that they have to submit their newspaper to their [student government] before they print it and that they do it just to humor them because they share funds,” Scholtes said. “We were like ‘Wait, what? Where are you from? That’s not what you do.’ We don’t have to answer to anyone, and I think that solves a lot of problems.”

Fox said she thought that even private schools in California, which are not subject to the same First Amendment limitations in censoring student media as public institutions but are limited by a state law regulating school’s ability to censor, are open to protecting student rights.

“That just seems to be how we work in California, and it’s something that is really good at teaching students not only their rights, but their responsibilities,” Fox said.

Ewert said the CNPA also works hard to train tomorrow’s professional journalists by offering membership to any student publication in the state.

“By raising the water level, so to speak, the newspaper publications would have better quality individuals who are coming in to work in the newsroom and in advertising,” Ewert said. “I think it’s going to take time to really weigh the effectiveness of our efforts, but certainly it can’t hurt especially in an era that it seems like a lot of student publications are the first thing to go when resources are limited at colleges and universities.

“We try to make sure that we can offer support both financially and through other resources to ensure that these publications remain learning tools.”