Illinois House approves bill enhancing student-expression rights

Monday, April 5, 1999

The Illinois House recently passed a measure designed to restore press rights lost by students more than a decade ago due to the landmark Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.

Sponsored by Rep. Mary Lou Cowlishaw, R-Napierville, the bill passed the House on March 18 by a vote of 110-5.

The measure would expand Illinois students' rights beyond those set by Hazelwood, which allowed school officials to monitor school-sponsored publications. Although the Hazelwood court granted school officials considerable power, it did require them to demonstrate strong educational reasons for regulating student publications.

As originally drafted, the Illinois bill would have granted students considerable press freedoms, making student editors solely responsible for the content of school publications. But some student-press advocates worry that an amendment the House has approved will decrease the bill's effectiveness.

The amendment would allow school principals, rather than the court, to determine when material in a student publication posed a problem. Under the revised bill, school officials could only regulate articles deemed to be libelous, obscene or harmful to minors, an unwarranted invasion of privacy or disruptive of the orderly school process.

The House also deleted protections for advertising content.

In 1997, the Legislature passed the Illinois Student Publications Act, which declared that high school students had freedom of the press and which made student editors — with the supervision of a faculty adviser — solely responsible for the news, opinion and advertising content of their publications.

But then-Gov. Jim Edgar vetoed the act. Although the House voted to override the veto, the Senate withdrew the bill amid pressure from school superintendents.

Supporters of the current bill say they are enjoying a much more press-friendly climate this time around, noting that Gov. George Ryan has promised to sign the bill if it reaches his office.

Although he initially strongly supported the bill, Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., says he now has mixed feelings about it.

“Unfortunately, the amendment added at the last minute seriously undermines the intentions behind the bill,” Goodman said. “I'm not persuaded that this is a bill that we would want to pass in its current form. But I think it does indicate that there is support for this kind of measure.”

But the Illinois Statewide School Management Alliance, a lobbying consortium representing principals, school boards, superintendents and school business managers, praised the new bill as an effective compromise.

“We were opposed to the original bill as initially drafted, thinking it might provide for irresponsible journalism, especially given the age of the journalists,” said Brian Schwartz, general counsel for the Illinois Principals Association. “We think our philosophy was that even large-name newspapers, and even more-experienced journalists, have an editor. To allow them to publish without any oversight would cause problems for the students and the schools.”

Schwartz said that the amendment provided a fair compromise because it allowed students more opportunities to exercise free expression, because school officials would no longer be allowed to edit the publications under most circumstances.

“It allows students to express ideas and have freedom of the press but still provides that information is responsible and accurate,” Schwartz said. “It's to protect not only the student journalist but to protect other students in the school, members of the school faculty and reputation of the school district.”

The bill is now before the Senate.

Six states — California, Massachusetts, Iowa, Colorado, Kansas and Arkansas — currently have laws designed to bolster student expression. More than 20 other states have considered such legislation but haven't passed it.

Currently, lawmakers in Nebraska, Michigan and Connecticut are considering student-rights bills similar to Illinois'.

“It's definitely a larger number that we've had in a while, but it's still a slow process,” Goodman said. “I think what this says, more than anything else, is that this issue isn't going away. As long as the problem of censorship still exists, students and teachers are going to fight for this type of legislation.”