Student press freedom bill bound for Illinois governor’s desk

Illinois state Sen. Daniel Biss (right) shares a celebratory moment with Stan Zoller, legislative chair of the Illinois Journalism Education Association, after a key vote advancing HB 5902, the Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act.

One of the nation’s strongest laws protecting the independence of high school journalism is on its way to Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk after the state House gave its final approval Tuesday.

HB 5902 passed the House 117-0 after its sponsor, Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, asked his colleagues to accept Senate-approved amendments that paved the way for the bill’s enactment. The governor gets 60 days from the date of transmittal to act on the bill; if he does not act, then the bill immediately becomes law without his signature.

The bill augments Illinois’ existing legal protections for college journalists by adding comparable protection for K-12 students, as well as preventing schools from taking adverse personnel actions against faculty advisers based on their students’ legally protected speech.

Students in public high schools will have the legally protected right to choose the editorial content of their publications, even those produced for credit as part of a class, as long as their speech is not libelous, obscene, invasive of privacy, or likely to provoke disruptive or unlawful behavior.

Guzzardi’s measure blunts the impact of the Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which greatly diminished the level of federal constitutional protection for speech in newspapers, yearbooks and other “curricular” school-sponsored media.

A Senate-added amendment clarifies that students cannot insist on publishing material that incites classmates to violate school rules, a change that won over the leading opponent, the Illinois School Management Association, which officially withdrew its opposition to the bill. With that clarification, the bill passed the Senate Friday on a 51-0 vote with one abstention.

Stan Zoller, a longtime high school journalism adviser and chair of the legislative committee for the Illinois Journalism Education Association, said, “This is a red-letter day for not only the IJEA, but scholastic journalism in Illinois. We are deeply indebted to the efforts of Rep. Will Guzzardi and Sen. Daniel Biss, who led the fight in the House and Senate respectively.”

Zoller also credited the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, state Rep. Elaine Nekritz, and the state director of the JEA, journalism adviser Brenda Field, for stewarding the bill despite opposition from lobbyists representing school boards and administrators.

HB 5902 squeezed through on the last possible day before the adjournment of a contentious session dominated by rancor over the prolonged inability to agree on a state budget.

In addition to the IJEA, the bill drew a broad array of endorsements including the McCormick Foundation, the Illinois League of Women Voters, the National Conference of Teachers of English and many more.

Unless the governor vetoes the bill, Illinois will become the second-largest state, after California, with legal protection for the independence of student journalists, and the third in the last two years — following North Dakota and Maryland — to pass a student-press-rights bill as part of the nationwide New Voices campaign supported by the Student Press Law Center.

“I cannot even begin to explain how much this bill means to me,” said student editor Hope Johnson of Taylorsville High School, who was the star witness in support of HB 5902 before the House Judiciary Committee. “I learned about the Hazelwood case my freshman year of journalism, and it made my blood boil, so to speak. I was under the impression that everyone had freedom of speech, but that apparently wasn’t the case for high school journalists. I felt frustrated, but the ruling had been in place since 1988, so how was I supposed to change it?”

“Knowing that I played even a tiny role in changing this law is still hard for me to process, and I cannot tell you how much it means to me,” Johnson said. “I feel honored, still shocked, and overwhelmingly proud. It’s a huge step in the right direction for the young journalists in the state of Illinois, and it’s a movement that is gaining recognition all across the nation, as well. I’m glad our voices are finally being heard. Even though the bill came just in time for my high school graduation, I am thrilled that the high school journalists who come after me will truly be able to practice their First Amendment Rights.

“I’m extremely thankful to everyone who helped make this happen. It’s a story I’ll be telling my kids a few too many times for their liking in years to come.”

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