Calif. expands freedoms for college press

Friday, September 22, 2006

After almost unanimous confirmation in both the California State Assembly and Senate, a bill protecting the First Amendment rights of college journalists was signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Aug. 28. The bill will take effect on Jan. 1, 2007.


Authored by Speaker Pro Tem Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) and Assemblyman Joe Nation (D-Martin), the bill, A.B. 2581, broadened California’s Leonard Laws to include the student press.


California’s unique Leonard Laws extend First Amendment free-speech protection to all high school and university students in the state, including those who attend private colleges. The laws (found in California Education Code sections 66301, 48950, and 94367) make it illegal to punish a student for speech that would be protected by either the First Amendment or the California Constitution if that student were off campus.


John Patrick, a student at the University of La Verne in Southern California, said, “As a student journalist, I am glad to reside in a state where the rights of student journalists are protected. And I hope that our law can set a legal precedent that serves as a model for other states.”


According to Greg Lewis, faculty adviser to the California State University at Fresno student newspaper The Collegian, “the current action amended [the code] to specifically include the press, and to specifically name administrators, in addition to governing boards and trustees, as being prohibited from censoring. … In the end, it was a strengthening of an existing law, not a new one.”


A.B. 2581 initially developed as a reaction to Hosty v. Carter, in which the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals severely curtailed the rights of collegiate journalists by applying the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier to universities.


In Hazelwood, the Court ruled it was not a violation of the First Amendment for administrators to censor high school student journalists in school-sponsored publications. The Hosty decision in July 2005 made it constitutional for university administrators to censor campus publications within the 7th Circuit.


The Oct. 31, 2000, issue of Governors State University’s The Innovator marked the beginning of a long battle for the freedom of the collegiate press. Student Margaret Hosty’s front-page story about the dismissal of The Innovator’s faculty adviser riled the administration, which claimed much of her information was false. GSU’s Dean of Student Affairs, Patricia Carter, then called The Innovator’s printing company and said that no further issues of the paper were to be printed until they had been reviewed by an administrator.


Students Hosty, Jeni Porche, and Steven Barba sued GSU in January 2001. In July 2005, the 7th Circuit decided that the precedent set by Hazelwood would apply, making Carter’s actions constitutional. In February 2006, the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal.


The decision sparked criticism from First Amendment and press-advocacy groups across the nation. Paul McMasters, ombudsman for the First Amendment Center, said, “College students should have full speech rights and college journalists certainly should have free-press rights. … Moreover, the public college audience deserves a press not subject to the authority of a government agency, in this case the school administration. The private college audience deserves the same, or they become second-class citizens compared to their peers at public universities.”


Though the Hosty decision applies as law only in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, the precedent it set is what led Leland and Nation to draft the California bill. The law will give student publications at public universities the same freedom of the press that professional media enjoy. Students at public high schools already had that freedom, which is secured by the California Student Free Expression Law. Now student journalists at the University of California, California State University and any California community college will experience the same.


“All students nationwide, especially those attending government-funded institutions, should be demanding that their right to truthful, accurate reporting be protected, and I hope our state can serve as proof that such protection can be granted,” Patrick said.


California is the only state to have such expansive laws protecting the First Amendment rights of students. According to McMasters, however, censorship is a widespread problem.


“The student press is hounded by suppression and regulation and attempts at censorship across the nation. … There are several reasons for this, chief among them that college administrators and faculty members view the student media as a public relations operation, not a news operation,” he said.


Melanie Bengtson is an intern at the First Amendment Center and a sophomore studying developmental politics at Belmont University.

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