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posted: 8/1/2016 5:30 AM

Illinois passes law protecting free speech for high school journalists

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Illinois lawmakers have passed a bill that aims to protect high school journalists from interference in school publications.

The Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act was passed unanimously by both the House and Senate and signed Friday by Gov. Bruce Rauner.

The law places responsibility for content in school-sponsored media in the hands of student journalists, under the guidance of student advisers and subject to limitations on material that is libelous or obscene, constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy, violates federal or state law or school district policies or disrupts the orderly operation of the school.

School officials would have the burden of proving that a publication is subject to restriction.

The bill was sponsored by Rep. Will Guzzardi, a Chicago Democrat, and Sen. Daniel Biss, a Skokie Democrat, in their respective houses, but gained early support from Northbrook Democratic Rep. Elaine Nekritz.

Nekritz was approached by Buffalo Grove residents Stan Zoller and Brenda Field, members of the board of the Illinois Journalism Education Association.

Zoller said the initiative was inspired after the death two years ago of James Tidwell, an Eastern Illinois University journalism professor who led the effort 18 years ago to pass similar legislation, only to see it vetoed by then Gov. Jim Edgar.

"This wasn't a knee-jerk reaction to any one case," Zoller said. "There have been situations that have come up, and finally we said, 'OK, it's time.'"

He added, "Some people were concerned that we were going to give student journalists the right to storm the Bastille. And that's not the case. You can see the law says that administrators can step in in cases of obscenity or libel issues. So the key is responsible journalism. And how can you argue with that?"

Field, a teacher who is yearbook adviser at Glenbrook South High School, said, "We're just thrilled about the legislation. It's been exciting to see that this is a bill that was supported in a bipartisan fashion.

"This is common sense legislation to give young people an opportunity to practice responsible journalism, to really look at all sides of the issue and report on it responsibly."

Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) in Washington, D.C., who testified before the state legislature, said the bill is part of a larger national campaign called "New Voices" that the SPLC set up last year following the enactment of a model statute in North Dakota.

He noted that the U.S. Supreme Court stripped away all meaningful First Amendment protection for student journalism in a 1988 ruling.

He said it was the 25th anniversary of that ruling that lit a fire under the movement to reform the law to protect what students write.

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