College journalists, advisers welcome new protections in Illinois

ILLINOIS — After Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) approved a new series of protections for campus news outlets on Aug. 31, student journalists and their supporters breathed a collective sigh of relief across the state.

The College Campus Press Act designates all student media outlets at public colleges and universities as public forums, preventing administrators from exercising prior review. The bill also makes schools immune from being sued for students’ editorial content as well as protecting faculty advisers from being terminated or otherwise punished for refusing to censor student publications.

“It’s really going to be a huge victory for some of the smaller papers that had run into these troubles before,” said Jordan Wilson, editor in chief of The Daily Egyptian, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale’s student newspaper. “For the smaller public colleges and institutions, this is going to give them the green light to start practicing real journalism. This is going to be a huge victory to go out and do their job now.”

Wilson said his newspaper’s faculty adviser, Eric Fidler, pumped his fist in the air in celebration when he read the segment of the bill offering advisers protection.

“It pretty much codifies rights that we’ve always claimed for ourselves,” Fidler said.

While he never felt threatened at SIU, Fidler said he appreciates having the legislature behind him, and he feels the law gives him more job security.

The act, introduced by Illinois Sen. Susan Garrett (D-Lake Forest), is meant to nullify the 2005 ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Hosty v. Carter, which said that college student publications that are not designated as public forums can be controlled by the administration, much like high school publications. By declaring all college student media in Illinois public forums, the law effectively nullifies that decision for student media.

“We’re very happy that this clears up the confusion created by the Hosty v. Carter decision,” said Lance Speere, president of College Media Advisers an adviser of the student paper at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. “It’s such a widely misinterpreted case. It’s very confusing in its wording.

“In Illinois a lot of the college newspapers were already operating at least in principle as public forums, and this simply creates some teeth now for them. I think really it was a result of that case coming up; some legislators recognizing that this really needs to be corrected.”

The decision still is in effect in the 7th Circuit’s other states, Indiana and Wisconsin. But James Tidwell, chairman of the department of journalism at Eastern Illinois University, said some in Indiana have talked to him about getting a similar bill passed there that would classify their student newspapers as public forums as well.

At Governors State University in Illinois, where the Hosty case originated, University President Elaine Maimon said her school supports the new legislation.

“As president of Governors State we welcome the College Campus Press Act, and we welcome a statewide restatement of the importance of the student press,” Maimon said.

Maimon joined the university in July 2007, well after the Hosty decision and the filing of another lawsuit, Blahut v. Oden which also accuses the school’s administrators of suppressing student press rights.

A co-plaintiff in that case, David Chambers, former copy editor and assistant business manager of the Phoenix, said this new law might speed along his own case, which still is waiting for the presiding judge, Robert Gettleman, to rule on a summary judgment request.

“It’s high time that this was done,” Chambers said. “It puts college administrators on notice, they need to be cognizant that adults who pay their way have rights that cannot be taken away, and they need to honor those rights.”

Chambers said he feels the new law is an indication of a turning tide in Illinois’ legal climate.

“I think it’s going to give Judge Gettleman more incentive to go ahead and deny the summary judgment,” Chambers said. “There are no ex post facto laws in this country, but, looking at the way the trend is going in the law, I think he is going to take this and view the case in a more positive light with regard to moving forward now.”

For More Information:

College Campus Press Act, Public Act 095-0580 (2007)

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