California legislation protecting student newspapers moves forward

CALIFORNIA -- Two bills that would help protect student newspapers in California from censorship and theft are making their way through the California State Legislature.

AB 2581, a bill designed to protect the First Amendment rights of college journalists, passed in a 76-0 vote in the California State Assembly today. The bill will now be sent to the California State Senate for consideration.

Assemblymen Leeland Yee, D-San Francisco, and Joe Nation, D-Marin, introduced the college censorship bill.

Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, a supporter of the bill, said there has been no formal opposition to the bill so far.

AB 2612, a bill that would make it a misdemeanor to take more than 25 copies of a free newspaper, passed an Assembly vote last week. Ewert said the bill is now awaiting assignment to a committee in the California State Senate.

Assemblyman George Plescia, R-San Diego, authored the theft bill.

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, Ewert said. 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 in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. 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 the three Midwestern states covered by the appeals court, 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, which also explicitly prohibits administrative prior restraint of student publications, would make it clear that the Leonard Law protecting freedom of expression on California's campuses clearly extends to the student press.

''In the Hosty case, that court found that students rights in regard to the student publication were limited,'' he said. ''Since California has such a long and rich tradition of protecting student speech, we decided that we would simply clarify existing law to include the student press in the realm of protected speech.''

The bill prohibiting the theft of newspapers would make it a misdemeanor to take more than 25 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.

''The student press is probably as much a victim of newspaper theft as most professional/mainstream newspapers,'' Ewert said. ''Professional publications are generally stolen for their recycle value. Thefts on college campuses tend to occur based on content/viewpoint discrimination.''

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