Proposed legislation in California designed to protect college journalists

Legislation in response to Hosty v. Carter decision, state publishers association says

CALIFORNIA -- Two student press-friendly bills are making their way through the California State Assembly -- one that would prohibit the theft of free publications and another that is designed to protect the First Amendment rights of college journalists.

Assemblyman George Plescia, R-San Diego, authored the theft bill and Assemblyman Joe Nation, D-San Rafael, authored the college press rights bill. The California Newspaper Publishers Association sponsored both bills.

The bill extending protection to college journalists is in response to the Hosty v. Carter decision out of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the CNPA. The appeals court decision held that the Supreme Court's 1988 Hazelwood decision limiting high school student free expression rights could extend to college and university campuses. The U.S. Supreme Court decided last month not to hear the Hosty case, letting stand the June 2005 decision out of the 7th Circuit.

Ten days after the 7th Circuit decision, the general counsel for the California State University system sent a memo to university presidents saying the Hosty decision could impact California.

"[T]he case appears to signal that CSU campuses may have more latitude than previously believed to censor the content of subsidized student newspapers, provided that there is an established practice of regularized content review and approval for pedagogical purposes," wrote CSU general counsel Christine Helwick at that time.

Although the 7th Circuit’s ruling is only applicable in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, Ewert said the memo raised some concerns amongst student press advocates in the Golden State.

“Ordinarily we wouldn’t be that concerned about a 7th Circuit decision,” Ewert said. “[The memo] just sent ripples throughout the student press. We thought it might be a good idea to ask the legislature to extend the speech protection that exists in the law now to student publications.”

And by explicitly including the student press in California’s Leonard law, the proposed legislation does just that, Ewert said.

The Leonard Law protects student speech by making it illegal to enforce any rule on California’s college campuses that would punish a student for speech that would be protected under the First Amendment or California’s Constitution off school grounds. The legislative history of the law states: "It is the intent of the Legislature that a student shall have the same right to exercise his or her right to free speech on campus as he or she enjoys when off campus."

Ewert said the proposed bill would make it clear that the Leonard Law protecting freedom of expression on California’s campuses clearly extends to the student press.

The bill prohibiting the theft of newspapers would make it a misdemeanor to take more than five copies of a free newspaper with the intent to recycle them for money, sell or barter them, deprive others of the ability to read the publication or harm a business competitor, according to CNPA’s Legislative Bulletin, an online publication.

“It is not just the newspaper itself that is being taken, it’s the advertising that is not being seen by the eyes that are intended to see them,” Ewert said. “[Publications] are stolen simply based on the content of the story or an editorial piece. The public, as well as the advertisers, are deprived.”

Because most high school and college newspapers are free, the bill should give student editors in the state more ammunition when their publications are stolen, student press advocates have said.

Both bills, which were introduced Feb. 24, have to be in print for 30 days before they are put before committees, Ewert said. The bills likely will go before the committees at the end of March or early April.

--Staff writer Evan Mayor contributed to this report.

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