Illinois student press freedom bill passes unanimously through House committee

ILLINOIS — Lawmakers on a House committee unanimously passed ‘New Voices’ legislation Wednesday that would bolster First Amendment protections for high school student journalists in the state.

About 50 high school students, their journalism advisers and free speech advocates attended the hearing for House Bill 5902 that 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. Illinois college journalists are already protected under state law.

The bill, introduced by Democratic Rep. Will Guzzardi in February, would not protect expression that is libelous, invades privacy, violates the law or creates a clear and present danger of disruptive or illegal activity. The bill also prevents school administrators from retaliating against school employees for protecting a student journalist’s right to free speech.

“We are now on the path to the free speech rights that students deserve,” Guzzardi said.

State lawmakers on the Illinois House Judiciary-Civil Committee voted 11-0 to pass the bill, but Guzzardi said there were some concerns over the verbiage of the bill, so he will add an amendment to clean up some of the language. He said the language will either go through committee again or be introduced on the House floor.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said an amendment will make the bill more clear and potentially stronger. He said one of the representatives’ concerns was about what process a teacher would go through if they faced retaliation from an administrator. Guzzardi said the amendment would address any concerns representatives have, while keeping intact the purpose of the bill.

The bill would reverse the effects of the 1988 Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, a decision that gave high school administrators the power to censor school-sponsored content if they had a “reasonable educational justification.”

Hope Johnson, a student journalist at Taylorville High School, testified in support of the legislation, arguing that the Hazelwood standard prevents student journalists from being watchdogs for their high schools and administration. She said her fellow student journalists are well aware of journalism ethics and hold themselves accountable for the content they publish.

“Censorship leaves people in the dark,” Johnson said at the hearing. “Censorship steals our voices. I and my fellow high-school journalists feel strongly about our right to report the truth.”

Guzzardi, who also testified at the hearing, said students should not be censored simply because a story might make a school look bad. Instead, he said students should be taught to question authority and hold those in power accountable when it serves the public good.

Two groups submitted testimony in opposition of the legislation: the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance/Illinois Association of School Boards and ED-RED, an advocacy organization that seeks to influence Illinois education policy.

Susan Hilton, director of governmental relations for the Illinois Association of School Boards, was the only one who testified in opposition to the bill, arguing that the Supreme Court had already weighed in on the issue and student journalists should not be exempt from having editors review their content.

Guzzardi said high school newspapers have students editors and an adviser to oversee their work.

“That argument, I think, just doesn’t really hold water,” he said.

College journalists at public institutions in the state already have First Amendment protection under the state’s College Campus Press Act, which was signed into law in 2007. The law defines media produced by students at public institutions in the state as a public forum for expression for the journalists and editors. According to the law, college media cannot be subject to prior review by school officials.

The law was enacted in response to a ruling in Hosty v. Carter, a 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case that applied the Hazelwood standard to subsidized college newspapers.

Now, this legislation to protect high school journalists is part of a national New Voices movement that has taken root in 20 states. There are similar active bills in Maryland, Missouri, Rhode Island, Michigan and Minnesota.

Illinois state lawmakers tried to pass similar legislation in 1997 that would protect student journalists’ free speech rights, but former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar vetoed the bill and argued that the legislation would not allow school board to “exercise full power over the paper’s content.”

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

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