Illinois has a law protecting student press freedom, so why is censorship still happening?

The exterior of the Illinois capitol building on a sunny day

ILLINOIS — In 2016, Illinois passed the Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act, which protects student journalists at public schools from censorship by their administration. But the language in the law does not protect advisers from retaliation over news stories their students produce. Those protections were initially part of HB 5902, but were stripped from the final bill prior to its passage. This has created a loophole for administrators to exploit, by threatening advisers’ jobs or programs in response to unflattering student work. When students then realize that their adviser’s role is threatened, they often surrender. 

In 2019, student journalists at Central Naperville High School in Naperville, Illinois attempted to publish a story in The Central Times about a developmentally disabled student who had repeatedly been violent and disruptive at school, at one point punching a teacher in the head and giving a concussion. The article focused  on the shortage of special education staff at the school. The reporters highlighted the need for additional staff and included examples of some of the public behaviors of this student, without naming him. 

During their investigation, the reporters reached out to the administration and district for comment. Both declined to comment. So they filed FOIA requests for information on damage done to school property by the student, as well as how many special education staff the district had on payroll. This alerted the administration to the article, and principal Bill Wiesbrook decided to review the piece prior to publication. He censored nearly 25% of the original article. Wiesbrook justified the censorship by claiming that the reporting violated the student’s right to privacy. The students initially pushed back, but ultimately backed down and allowed the censored version to go to print.  

For the protection of our adviser, we complied

Despite the students being well within their legal rights to publish the article, which they had confirmed by speaking with a Student Press Law Center attorney, the students recognized that the job security of their beloved adviser, Keith Carlson, was at stake. “When we had the article ready to publish, the principal said he wanted to meet with us, and basically threatened our adviser if we published the story as it was,” said Senior and Editor-in-Chief Amisha Sethi. “We did not want that. For the protection of our adviser, we complied,” she acknowledged.  

After the censored version went to print, the editorial board published an op-ed titled  “To the district: Communication (not censorship) is key.” In it, the reporters highlighted the administration repeatedly withholding information critical to their reporting, directly censoring them, using prior review, and explicitly referenced their fear of reprisal against their adviser, Keith Carlson. 

The Central Times felt obligated to comply because the staff was concerned about potential disciplinary action and the job security of their adviser,” stated the student editors in their Op-Ed. 

They were right to be concerned.

 “It was insinuated that if I did not enforce the censorship of the article and get my staff to follow through with that, I could lose my position as adviser,” affirmed Carlson.

Illinois is one of only 14 states with a law in place to safeguard student press freedom. The language within all of these laws protects student press freedom from acts of prior restraint. Only 7 of those 14 states have specific language that states an adviser cannot lose their job, be reassigned, or retaliated against in any manner over publication of an article.

It was insinuated that if I did not enforce the censorship of the article and get my staff to follow through with that, I could lose my position as adviser

 It is not uncommon to exclude language that protects advisers, according to Hillary Davis, the New Voices advocacy and campaign organizer at SPLC. Davis says that SPLC and other student press advocacy organizations always recommend that language be part of the legislation, but it sometimes gets stripped due to pushback from unions or district officials. 

Teachers unions sometimes voice concern over language that specifically protects one type of teacher from censorship, because those protections are not afforded to other teachers. 

Davis also said administrators sometimes argue the inclusion of language that protects advisers makes it harder for them to censor when it might be in the best interest of the students. But this is patently false. In every state with New Voices legislation, the law always contains language that allows administrators to censor material that is libelous, that may incite violence, that bullies, that violates any law, or that invades privacy. The law also protects the district, teachers and students from being sued over content. 

“Opposition to New Voices really stems from misunderstanding what adviser rights are and what administrator responsibilities are, and what their leeway is,” Davis says.

30 years of censorship

The New Voices movement aims to pass legislation in each state counteracting the impact of the 1988 Supreme Court ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. In Hazelwood, a Missouri high school principal censored articles student journalists tried to publish on teen pregnancy and the impact of divorce on children. The principal argued the articles would be “disruptive to student learning.” When the Supreme Court heard the case, they recognized a new category of “school-sponsored speech” over which the Court said high school officials could exert greater control than independently produced student speech. 

Under its new Hazelwood standard, the Court said school officials could censor school-sponsored student speech when they had a “reasonable educational justification” for doing so. This vaguely defined standard gave school officials much more control over most school-sponsored high school student media than they had under the landmark 1969 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines, which had established protections for all forms of on-campus student speech for decades. 

For more than 30 years Hazelwood has had a chilling effect on student free press, because high school journalists know they are at the whim of their school administrator’s willingness to support their work. 

Adviser protections

For Illinois student journalists, while HB 5902 has legally restored the kind of editorial discretion that students had prior to Hazelwood, it does have limits. 

Dennis Brown teaches law and advises student journalists at Huntley High School in Huntley, Illinois. He said back in 2016, “I sent a copy to my principal and superintendent when the law got passed. The superintendent wrote me back and said ‘Yeah, big deal. There’s no teeth in it. It’s a feel-good law, so what.’” 

Brown says he has a close relationship with his journalists. The removal of the language that protects advisers like himself leaves his students vulnerable. He worries they will choose to self-censor over risking his job. 

“I frequently talk to student journalists — in Illinois and across the country — who are reluctant to push back against administrative censorship because they are worried their actions could have a negative effect on their adviser,” said SPLC Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand. 

Administrations have so successfully terrified these kids into silence and self-censorship

Even if a teacher has tenure, their district can still intimidate in other ways. They can reassign what a journalist teaches or schedule meetings to reprimand the adviser. And many advisers feel unsure and unprotected.

The administration “can do other things to make life difficult for an adviser. They could take my program away from me, and not fire me. Is that retaliation? I don’t know,” said Brown.  Under the current law Brown says “I don’t know if I have any recourse. And I have seen that happen to people.”

Brown says that he now has the full support of his administration, and they allow him flexibility and freedom with his student journalists. He acknowledges that things have improved since the passage of HB 5902.

The ties that bind

 Since 2016, “we don’t often find ourselves in those moments of crisis,” said Dean Bradshaw, adviser at Adlai Stevenson High School, in Lincolnshire, Illinois. For journalists at The Statesman, these past few years the law has been critical.

Bradshaw, who took over as adviser in 2019, is very supportive of his students. He describes them as capable, engaged journalists, and says he advocates for the credibility and importance of their work with the administration. He says that between the protections now in place and the relationship he has cultivated with his administration, his journalists have freedom to report. 

“Our newspaper feels pretty protected and that we have the agency to cover the things that we think are important to our school’s conversation,” said Ojasvi Saxena, editor of The Statesman. “I personally think, though, that’s because of our adviser, and how open he is to encouraging us,” continued Saxena.

But the close bond many student journalists have with their advisers can be a double edged sword at a school that seeks to suppress student reporting. For these student journalists, if they see their administration pressuring their adviser to censor, and even threatening their job, many choose to self-censor.

“Administrations have so successfully terrified these kids into silence and self-censorship,” Davis said. And she points out that the fear is not only for themselves, but ultimately over consequences to their adviser’s career.

… we aren’t doing our best to educate aspiring reporters if we impose unrealistic and limiting constraints on their work

This kind of backdoor censorship was not what State Representative Will Guzzardi intended when he sponsored the bill. “I really believed in this bill when we passed it, and I believe in it now. And if it’s not having the effect that we wanted it to have, then we need to revisit it, and consider making it stronger,” said Guzzardi, a former journalist himself.

Former state senator Daniel Biss co-sponsored the 2016 bill  and feels strongly that press freedoms are vital to any journalist, at any age. “In my view, these are fundamental rights that all Americans should enjoy, but they struck me as especially important to establish for student journalists — after all, we aren’t doing our best to educate aspiring reporters if we impose unrealistic and limiting constraints on their work,” said Biss.

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