Student press freedom bill unanimously clears Senate committee as school lobbyists drop opposition

Sally Renaud and Stan Zoller of the Illinois Journalism Education Association strategize at the Illinois Capitol after a student press rights bill won unanimous Senate committee approval.

ILLINOIS — Legal protection for Illinois high school journalists cleared its toughest legislative hurdle Tuesday and is headed for the Senate floor.

Two weeks after giving House Bill 5902 a skeptical hearing that cast doubt on its prospects, members of the Illinois Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously passed the measure, setting up a Senate floor vote that could come as soon as Thursday.

“This is just another step. It’s by no means done. We’ve got to see how the Senate votes and then start working on the governor’s office,” said longtime high school journalism educator Stan Zoller, who has been leading the Illinois initiative along with Brenda Field, state director of the Illinois Journalism Education Association.

The bill would blunt the impact of the Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which deprived students of meaningful First Amendment protection in school-sponsored curricular media. HB 5902 would restore the protection previously existing under the Supreme Court’s 1969 decision in Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which forbids censorship of student speech unless it is unlawful or provokes a material and substantial disruption of school operations. It also would outlaw retaliating against high school journalism advisers for the legally protected speech of their students.

Sally Renaud, an Eastern Illinois University journalism professor and executive director of the Illinois JEA, attended the hearing and said afterward, “Every step along this process brings us closer to the protection that high school journalists and their advisers deserve. On to the Senate floor and the governor’s desk!”

The primary opponent of the bill, the Illinois School Management Association, withdrew its opposition after the Senate sponsor, Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Skokie, agreed to an amendment clarifying that speech inciting students to violate school rules is unprotected and still can be censored.

The compromise appeared to satisfy formerly skeptical members of the Senate committee, who unanimously voted to send the bill to the floor after only a moment’s debate.

Because of amendments added in the Senate, the bill must return to the House if it clears the Senate floor. Biss said he expects to call the bill for a floor vote Thursday, and assuming it passes, the amendments must receive House concurrence before the legislature adjourns May 31.

In recent days, the bill has picked up three Senate co-sponsors, Democratic Sens. Steve Stadelman, Jacqueline Y. Collins and Napoleon Harris, III, all of whom have a background in journalism.

HB 5902 is part of the New Voices initiative supported by the Student Press Law Center, which has resulted in the passage of one new student press rights law so far this year, Maryland’s SB 764, with bills still pending in Michigan, Minnesota and Rhode Island.

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