Advocates await signature in Illinois

Student journalists at public universities and community colleges in Illinois are one signature away from a guarantee that their newspapers are not subject to prior review or restraint.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) has until the beginning of September to take action on the measure, known as the College Campus Press Act, which would secure press freedom and effectively negate the 2005 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision in Hosty v. Carter in that state.

The Hosty case began in January 2001 when editors at the Governors State University newspaper, The Innovator, filed a lawsuit against the university, claiming that administrators violated their First Amendment rights by requiring prior approval of the content of the newspaper.

The federal district court and a three-judge panel of the federal appeals court ruled in favor of the students, but an en banc panel of the 7th Circuit reversed the decision, siding with the school administrators. In a 7-4 vote, the court said school officials could control student newspapers that have not been designated as public forums.

The editors asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, but the Court declined in February 2006.

First Amendment advocates said the decision would diminish the rights of college journalists. The decision applies to Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, which comprise the 7th Circuit.

But the bill designates all public college and community college publications in the state as forums for student expression, nullifying the Hosty decision in Illinois.

Many state journalism experts say the bill will have the greatest effect on community colleges.

John Ryan, executive director of the Illinois Community College Journalism Association, said the state’s six college daily newspapers have long histories, and many already have public-forum status. But the more than 20 community college publications are more likely to be a part of the curriculum, which makes them vulnerable to prior review.

“[Community college publications are] the potential winners here,” Ryan said.

James Tidwell, legal adviser to the student newspaper at Eastern Illinois University, agreed that community colleges likely would see the most change. The measure gives student publications a public-forum status, it puts a stop to prior restraint and it protects advisers, he added.

But Ira David Levy, faculty adviser of The Wright Times at Wright College, said community colleges are not the only schools that will benefit from the bill. Publications that already enjoyed an open-forum policy also will see greater protection, he said.

“It strengthens those [open-forum] statements,” said Levy, the immediate past president of the Illinois Community College Journalism Association. “It will better position them.”

Legislative history

Illinois Sen. Susan Garrett (D-Lake Forest) introduced the bill in February with assistance from the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois. Senators passed the bill unanimously in March.

Sponsors in the House of Representatives added an amendment in June to meet opponents’ objections that the original legislation did not provide administrators with protections.

The amendment has two major provisions. One protects administrators from being held liable for any student-produced material. The other allows administrators to punish students who use unprotected speech, including “obscenity” and “incitement.”

Representatives passed the amended bill with a vote of 112-2, and senators unanimously voted to pass a motion of concurrence on the amendment shortly thereafter.

“Now in Illinois, college journalists at public universities will be given the same opportunities as other journalists to write openly about relevant issues,” Garrett said in a statement. “By passing [the College Campus Press Act], we have sent a message that journalists who write for their college newspapers should not be treated differently and that freedom of the press is essential for true openness in college newspapers.”

Jim Ferg-Cadima, legislative counsel for the Illinois ACLU, said he thinks the bill passed so easily because “it wasn’t as ambitious as other bills,” such as the Oregon bill that protects both college and high school student publications.

“It’s targeted just to creating a legislative remedy for college students,” Ferg-Cadima said.

While students and advisers in Illinois rejoice, journalists at Wisconsin and Indiana public universities are wondering whether their states will consider similar measures.

Indiana progressing

The Indiana Collegiate Press Association is working to create anti-Hosty –legislation in the Hoosier state.

“Our goal has always been to extend to college media the rights and responsibilities that professional media have,” said Vince Filak, executive director of the association and adviser to the student newspaper at Ball State University.

Filak said the Indiana General Assembly will not reconvene until January 2008, giving the association a few months to prepare.

“We absolutely plan to use the Illinois bill as a model,” Filak said. He added that he expects Indiana legislators to support the measure.

Steve Key, general counsel at the Hoosier State Press Association, said the professional organization would be “encouraging and supportive” of any efforts to pass anti-Hosty legislation in the state.

Wisconsin handling Hosty

But student journalists in Wisconsin are taking another approach.

Instead of working on a piece of legislation, student editors at university newspapers are working with their specific administrations to create school policies that ensure students are in control of content.

“Officials (at the various campuses) have been open to entering into agreements, declaring student newspapers limited public fora,” said David Allen, a media law professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.

Many student press leaders seem to believe that legislation is unnecessary because they “have been satisfied with their discussions with university officials,” he added.

No one has made anti-Hosty legislation a priority, agreed Peter Fox, president of the Wisconsin Newspaper Association.

He added that the Hosty decision “didn’t draw very much attention here in the legislature — or the public for that matter.”