Illinois governor signs landmark measure protecting high school journalists against censorship

An Illinois bill protecting student journalists’ rights was signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner Friday and is effective immediately.

The state had existing protections for college journalists, but the bill adds similar protections for students in public high schools as well.

READ THE LAW: Illinois New Voices Act (2016)

Students in public high schools will now have a legally protected right to choose what content will be part of their publications, even those produced for credit as part of a class. The law does not restrict a school from removing material that is libelous, obscene, invasive of privacy, or likely to provoke disruptive or unlawful behavior. However, the law places the burden on school administrators for demonstrating, without undue delay, that speech fits within one of the unprotected categories before it may be restrained.

HB 5902 was sponsored by Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, and handled in the Senate by Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Skokie. It passed 117-0 in the House on this session’s last day before adjournment.The Senate previously passed the bill 51-0 after approving an amendment clarifying that students cannot insist on publishing content that encourages students to violate school rules. The bill would have taken effect as of Aug. 27 with or without the governor’s signature, as long as it was not vetoed.

The bill’s enactment makes Illinois the second-largest state, after California, with legal protection for student journalists, and the third in the last two years, following North Dakota and Maryland. The bill is part of a nationwide movement, New Voices, which has produced bills in eight states so far, with legislation still pending in Michigan, Minnesota and New Jersey.

This law will reverse the effects of Hazelwood SchoolDistrict v. Kuhlmeier, a 1988 Supreme Court case that gave high school administrators a free hand to censor school-sponsored publications so long as there was a justification “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

Stan Zoller, a longtime high school journalism adviser and chair of the legislative committee for the Illinois Journalism EducationAssociation, was a major proponent of the bill and said the signing came as a pleasant surprise.

“We are absolutely positively thrilled and we were amazed when we heard about it,” Zoller said.

The signing coming a time of such political importance in the country makes the passage of the bill even more significant, he said.

“The timing couldn’t be better,” Zoller said. “We are about to send these students into the biggest civic duty possible — voting. It is a great opportunity to empower them so they can cover this freely.”

Zoller was inspired by the work of James Tidwell, a longtime Eastern Illinois University journalism professor and nationally recognized expert on First Amendment rights, who nearly succeeded in passing a similar law 18 years ago. Tidwell died two years ago, and the law stands as a lasting legacy of his work, Zoller said.

“We had to do this for James,” he said. “This is a tribute to him because he was our inspiration.”