Illinois House unanimously sends New Voices press freedom bill on to Senate

ILLINOIS — House lawmakers unanimously passed New Voices legislation Tuesday that would bolster free speech rights for high school journalists and prevent administrative censorship in the Prairie State.

House Bill 5902, introduced by Democratic Rep. Will Guzzardi earlier this year, would protect high school journalists’ right to free speech and of the press in school-sponsored media, regardless of whether the school pays for the media or it is produced as part of a class. College journalists are already afforded protection under state law.

The legislation would not allow administrators to use prior restraint on school media, unless the content is libelous, invades privacy, violates the law or creates a clear and present danger of disruptive or illegal activity. The House approved the legislation by a unanimous 114-0 vote without any debate.

“I was really excited,” Guzzardi said. “I think it’s a great day for student journalists in our state.”

Guzzardi said the unanimous support sent a clear message that student free speech is a common-sense issue. He said representatives agreed that it’s healthy for young people to question authority and think critically about their school’s administration. In voting for the bill, he said representatives understood that it’s not right for school administrators to censor stories because they think it will not reflect well on the school.

Now the bill heads to the Illinois Senate, where Democratic Sen. Daniel Biss is set to present the bill, said Stan Zoller, chairman of the Illinois Journalism Education Association legislative committee, which advocated for the New Voices legislation.

“We had great support from both sides of the aisle,” he said.

Zoller, who also serves as a board member for the IJEA, said both sides of the aisle recognized the strong connection between high school journalism and civic engagement. He said the representatives also seemed to understand the importance of scholastic free speech rights when voting on the issue.

Before going into the vote Tuesday, the legislation picked up two more co-sponsors for a total of seven. Two more signed on afterward, bringing the total to six Democratic sponsors and three Republicans.

“Hopefully these reps will talk to their Senate colleagues and get them on board,” Zoller said.

If passed, the legislation would reverse the effects of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case that gave high school administrators the ability to censor school-sponsored media for any justification “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

Representatives on the Illinois House Judiciary-Civil Committee approved the bill by a unanimous vote earlier this month.

Besides the common-sense stance on the issue, Guzzardi said the robust debate lawmakers had in committee contributed to the widespread support from the House.  In response to some concerns raised in the committee, Guzzardi added an amendment clarifying the limits of school liability, while keeping intact the purpose of the bill.

According to the amended version of the bill, no parent, school district or school district employee shall be liable for “any civil or criminal action for any expression made or published by students.” An additional change from the original as-filed bill clarifies that obscene content is not protected against censorship. Guzzardi said working with a Republican representative on the amendments helped facilitate the passage of the bill.

In 1997, Illinois lawmakers tried to pass similar legislation that would have provided free speech protections for student journalists. The bill passed both houses in the Illinois legislature, but  former Gov. Jim Edgar vetoed the bill and argued that school boards would not be able to “exercise full power over the paper’s content.”

Regardless, Zoller said he thinks the bill has a good chance of making it through the Senate, especially considering the bipartisan support for the bill and Republican input into the amendment process.

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