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

ILLINOIS — House lawmakers unanimously passed New Voiceslegislation Tuesday that would bolsterfree speech rights for high school journalists and prevent administrativecensorship in the Prairie State.

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

The legislation would not allow administrators to use priorrestraint on school media, unless the content is libelous, invades privacy,violates the law or creates a clear and present danger of disruptive or illegalactivity. The House approved the legislation by a unanimous 114-0 vote withoutany debate.

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

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

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

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

Zoller, who also serves as a board member for the IJEA, saidboth sides of the aisle recognized the strong connection between high schooljournalism and civic engagement. He said the representatives also seemed tounderstand the importance of scholastic free speech rights when voting on theissue.

Before going into the vote Tuesday, the legislation pickedup 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 colleaguesand get them on board,” Zoller said.

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

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

Besides the common-sense stance on the issue, Guzzardi saidthe robust debate lawmakers had in committee contributed to the widespreadsupport from the House.  In response tosome concerns raised in the committee, Guzzardi added an amendment clarifyingthe 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 orcriminal action for any expression made or published by students.” Anadditional change from the original as-filed bill clarifies that obscenecontent is not protected against censorship. Guzzardi said working with aRepublican representative on the amendments helped facilitate the passage ofthe bill.

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

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

SPLC staff writer Ryan Tarinelli can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6318.