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Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act introduced in Illinois

In order to give greater First Amendment protection to high school student journalists and allow them to exercise their freedom of speech and of the press in school, Democratic Rep. Will Guzzardi introduced House Bill 5902 on Feb. 11 to the Illinois legislature.

(Photo at right shows Star editors and reporters discussing Principal Stephen Ngo’s December 2015 decision to censor their story).

The Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act, House Bill 5902, would do more to protect students’ right to determine the  content of the media than students have under the 1988 Supreme Court ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.

Under Hazelwood, high school administrators have the authority to censor school-sponsored newspapers as long as they had a “reasonable educational justification” and the censorship was viewpoint neutral.

Steinmetz principal Stephen Ngo invoked Hazelwood when he blocked the Star from publishing its later bell schedule story in the Nov.-Dec. 2015 Star.


Rep. Guzzardi, who introduced the Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act, poses with Communities United organizers Sarah Johnson (left) and Jamie Adams (back), and Steinmetz Star 2015 editor in chief Dalia Mena (in center) and reporter Brian Geans (at right) last year.

Student journalists would be protected from this kind of administrator prior review and censorship under House Bill 5902.

The Illinois bill is part of the New Voices Act state legislation, a national  movement to restore the Tinker standard of student expression in public high schools (as well as provide protection for public and private college media.

TheTinker Standard (1967) protects high school student speech unless it is libelous, an invasion of privacy or creates a “clear and present danger” or a “material and substantial disruption” of the school. The Hazelwood decision (1988) allowed administrators to easily justify censorship of legitimate speech in curricular settings.

Under the new students would better understand and participate in the freedoms of the First Amendment and become more prepared for careers in media.

“Participating in journalism is one of the best ways for our students to get civically engaged,” Rep. Guzzardi said. “And House Bill 5902 will ensure that our young journalists are prepared for careers in media and public life.”

The following states have enacted New Voices legislation protection: Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Arkansas, Colorado, Oregon, California and North Dakota. California, Washington and Pennsylvania. In addition to Illinois, Maryland also introduced anti-Hazelwood legislation this week.

The following Q and A about the New Voices legislation comes from the New Voices USA website.

Q: Why is New Voices important? 

A: Censorship is detrimental for students and society. Punishing students for their speech teaches them that censorship, often arbitrary and without limits, is acceptable. But in a society dependent on journalists and the public keeping the government in check, we cannot afford to have curiosity and confidence bred out of our students. We cannot afford to stifle today’s new voices because they are tomorrow’s media leaders and citizens.

Q: Why do students need freedom of the press? 

A: Students are the “embedded journalists” letting their communities know how effectively schools are performing. A Brookings Institution survey documents that just 1.4 percent of mainstream media is devoted to education news. If students are not free to disclose the shortcomings of their schools, the public is unlikely to find out. Study after study demonstrates that the only effective way of teaching civics in schools is for students to discuss contemporary political issues — which is exactly what school censorship prevents. Research by the University of Kansas documents that students who work in newsrooms supportive of press freedom report higher levels of civic effectiveness — the belief that they can use their voices to influence public policy.

Q: How do New Voices laws work? 

A: A New Voices statute simply provides a common-sense list of the harmful material that a school can restrict from student media, including libel or obscenity. These laws give students a measure of protection beyond the floor set by the Supreme Court in its 1988 Hazelwood decision, which has been discredited by every journalism education organization in America as an excessive level of control. As the Society of Professional Journalists stated in a resolution calling on schools to enact more balanced policies, “it is well-documented the Hazelwood censorship clause impedes an educator’s ability to adequately instruct and train students in professional journalistic values and practices.”

journalism class

Some of the Steinmetz Star reporters.

Scholastic journalism fosters understanding.

“The world of free speech begins with young people learning to express themselves,” said Sally Renaud, executive director of the Illinois Journalism Education Association.

“And thanks to their high school media advisers, many join the adult world thinking critically, with strength and passion. They become adults who use their free speech privileges with a sense of purpose, understanding the power of language and the responsibilities that come with that power.” —  New Voices of Illinois

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