Illinois state legislators to consider collegiate free press bill

ILLINOIS — State legislators will consider a bill next week that would prohibit public college administrators from censoring student publications, effectively negating the 2005 Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Hosty v. Carter.

The College Campus Press Act, sponsored by Illinois Sen. Susan Garrett (D-Lake Forest), would prohibit public college administrators from mandating prior review or restraint of college student publications, which the Hosty decision allowed administrators to do at papers that are not designated public forums for student expression.

The bill was introduced Feb. 8, and it is scheduled to first appear before the Illinois Senate Higher Education Committee late next week. If the bill moves smoothly through the legislative process it could be signed into law as early as the summer, Garrett said. The bill would void Hosty in Illinois, which along with Indiana and Wisconsin encompasses the Seventh Circuit.

“We want to make it very clear that the freedoms of speech are not something that can be negotiated by administrators of colleges,” said Garrett, who described herself as a “good government” senator with past experience in open government and ethics legislation.

This is the first bill she has introduced that deals with free speech, and she said she has received help from the American Civil Liberties Union.

The bill has received little attention from the press, and neither colleges nor college media representatives have made their opinions of the bill public.

“I’m not sure exactly where the universities are going to weigh in,” Garrett said.

The University of Illinois spokespeople who oversee state relations were traveling Friday and did not return calls by press time.

Although some universities might be weary of granting so much freedom to the student press after the Hosty decision, Jim Ferg-Cadima, legislative counsel for the ACLU, predicted that many schools would be receptive to the bill’s language because it makes student editors solely responsible for content.

He said, universities would not have to face legal liability for editorial content — the concern of which has been a motivation for some censorship in the past.

Ferg-Cadima also said universities might be glad to see the act does not prevent the university from responding to speech that is not protected under the First Amendment, such as that which incites violence.

The bill states that “nothing in this act prohibits the imposition of discipline for harassment, threats or intimidation, unless constitutionally protected.”

The bill seeks to nullify the ruling in the case Hosty v. Carter, which originated in January 2001 with a lawsuit brought against a dean at Illinois’ Governors State University by three student journalists, who claimed the college overstepped its bounds when the dean demanded prior approval of the student publication, The Innovator.

The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the administration, and in its decision the court stated that the standards set forth by the 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which had only been applied to high schools until then, could be applied to colleges as well.

The Hazelwood decision declared that unless a newspaper is designated a public forum for student expression, it could be censored when school officials demonstrated a reasonable educational justification.

The College Campus Press Act would negate the Hosty ruling by declaring that campus media produced primarily by students at Illinois’ nine public universities and various public community colleges is considered a public forum for student expression.

Last year the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the Hosty v. Carter case. When the Supreme Court opted to pass on the case, the ACLU began its push within the Seventh Circuit to combat Hosty through legislation.

The Illinois bill is one of several recent pieces of legislation to protect the free press rights of students. In August 2006 California passed a law that explicitly prohibited prior restraint of public college student media. That bill also was a response to the Hosty v. Carter ruling.

State legislators in Oregon and Washington, in response to Hosty, have also recently offered bills that would protect both high school and college student journalists from censorship.

The Illinois Senate Higher Education Committee will consider the bill, labeled SB2709, on Thursday, Garrett said.

By Brian Hudson, SPLC staff writer

  • Visit the Student Press Law Center’s Law Library