Unanimous Senate vote leaves Illinois student press freedom legislation on the verge of becoming law

Makin' the Law: Illinois governor signs landmark measure protecting high school journalists against censorship
Journalism educators celebrated after a Senate committee vote approving the New Voices of Illinois press freedom bill, which on Friday cleared the Senate on a 51-0 vote with one abstention.

Without opposition, the Illinois Senate ratified a bill Friday protecting the editorial independence of high school journalists and advisers, putting the measure one technicality away from Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk.

House Bill 5902 needs only a perfunctory House vote agreeing to non-controversial amendments added in the Senate.

The House had earlier passed its version of the bill 114-0, and the final House vote could come as soon as Saturday, with legislators meeting through the holiday weekend to finish work before their session must adjourn Tuesday.

“Being involved with this legislation has been inspiring,” said Brenda Field, a high school journalism adviser and Illinois state director of the Journalism Education Association. “As advisers, we know how intelligent and capable student journalists are — we understand the common-sense nature of a bill like HB 5902. Before our initial conversations with legislators in January, I worried those outside the classroom might not appreciate the need for a bill like this; I worried they might underestimate our staffs. What I found to be true was the opposite. Legislators on both sides of the aisle get it. They believe in what our students do.”

The bill restores the level of press freedom that existed in public schools before the Supreme Court deprived student journalists of substantive First Amendment protection in its 1988 ruling, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. It permits schools to restrain speech that is unlawful or incites illegal or disruptive activity, but otherwise gives students the right to determine the content of their own publications, protects advisers against adverse personnel actions for what their students publish, and insulates schools against liability for the speech of their students.

“It enables the life of the student journalist to be consistent with available opportunities with current technology and I think will create better pedagogical opportunities,” said Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Skokie, in presenting the bill to the Senate. No senators debated or questioned the measure, and it passed 51-0 with one abstention.

Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, a former journalist, sponsored the bill in the House. It attracted broad support from advocates for journalism and civic education, including the Illinois Press Association, the McCormick Foundation, the Illinois League of Women Voters, the National Council of Teachers of English and many others.

Although the lobbyists representing school administrators went on record opposing the bill, they withdrew their opposition after Senate amendments clarifying that speech inciting students to violate school rules remains unprotected and can be censored.

“Our high school journalists and their advisers in Illinois have waited a long time for this kind of basic protection,” said Sally Renaud, journalism professor at Eastern Illinois University and executive director of the Illinois JEA. “What a vote of confidence and recognition for the work they do in their schools. I am glad the Senate has moved this important legislation forward, and I hope the governor will sign it into law as soon as possible. It will be a great way to start the 2016-17 school year.”

Illinois already has comparable protection for journalists and advisers at public colleges and universities, the College Campus Press Act, which became law in 2007.

Once a bill reaches the Illinois governor, he has 60 days to sign or veto it. The law would take effect immediately upon being signed.

This article originally appeared on www.splc.org.