Maryland and Illinois join nationwide anti-censorship movement by filing New Voices bills

In a momentous week for the nationwide New Voices campaign, Maryland and Illinois have joined the list of states with legislation pending to protect students journalists from administrative censorship.

Maryland’s bill, Senate Bill 764, introduced by Democratic Sens. Jamin Raskin and Jim Rosapepe on Feb. 5, would extend to high school and college student journalists the ability to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media — regardless of whether the school district financially supports the media or if the publication is produced as part of a class. The bill would also protect student journalists from prior restraint by school officials or discipline after publication.

Senate Bill 764 would protect students’ right to determine the news, opinion, feature and advertising content of the media, as long as it is not libelous, an invasion of privacy, in violation of federal or state law, or inciteful of a substantial disruption of the school’s operation.

Rebecca Snyder, executive director of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association, said the bill will ultimately help the entire journalism industry because students will have a greater knowledge of the pillars it stands on.

“So often student journalists get the wrong idea about their protections,” Snyder said. “They are learning something completely different in high school and have to unlearn it all when reporting on the college level.”

She said Senate Bill 764 would better prepare student journalists to enter the professional world after college graduation.

In order to help the bill succeed, Snyder said the press association will help clarify to legislators that this bill will serve as an educational and civic tool, rather than a way to restrict administrative functions.

On March 2, the Senate Education Health and Environmental Affairs Committee will hear testimony for the bill. Rosapepe deferred comment to Raskin, who was not immediately available to comment.

In Illinois, a similar bill, House Bill 5902, was introduced by Democratic Rep. Will Guzzardi on Thursday, 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.

Students at state-sponsored higher education institutions in Illinois are already protected by the College Campus Press Act. Signed into law in 2007, the CCPA requires all campus media produced by students at public universities in the state be deemed a public forum for expression by student journalists and editors at the institution.

The free expression law, which provides college student journalists with added protection against administrative censorship, was passed in response to the 2005 ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Hosty v. Carter. The Hosty decision applied the 1988 Supreme Court ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier — which gave high school administrators the authority to censor school-sponsored newspapers as long as they had a “reasonable educational justification” and the censorship was viewpoint neutral — to subsidized student newspapers at college.

As of Jan. 1, Illinois law also requires each high school student to complete one semester of civic education, which focuses on government institutions, the discussion of current and controversial issues, service learning and simulations of the democratic process.

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

Stan Zoller, chairman of the Illinois Journalism Education Association legislative committee behind New Voices, said he saw how successful the North Dakota New Voices Act was and wanted to push for something similar to be enacted in his state.

North Dakota’s legislature unanimously passed a student press freedom bill in the spring of 2015. The state law protects both high school and college journalists from censorship.

Zoller said while he worked with the Task Force on Civic Education of the Illinois State Board of Education on its report for the recently-passed civics law, he noticed a good part of it dealt with news literacy.

The law defines civic education as helping young people acquire and learn to use the skills, knowledge and attitudes that will prepare them to be competent and responsible citizens throughout their lives. A key part of this is understanding and exercising news literacy, he said.

“The key elements of news literacy are independence and unbiased reporting,” Zoller said. “If we’re teaching high school kids news literacy, they need to have practice with its ideals.”

Zoller said the recently-introduced legislation is looking to focus on the importance of free speech and of the press from an education standpoint that will give the students the opportunity to practice conscientious journalism.

Illinois lawmakers have tried once before to pass free press legislation for high school newspapers in 1997, but then-Gov. Jim Edgar vetoed the bill, arguing that it created a situation where “the entity responsible for the newspaper — the school board — cannot exercise full power over the paper’s content.”

About 20 state campaigns are mobilizing to produce similar legislation, and bills have been introduced so far in Nebraska, Washington State, Missouri and New Jersey. The Missouri and Washington bills have both passed initial committee votes.

“We want students to think, ‘My work made a difference because I had the ability to practice free and responsible journalism in high school,’” Zoller said.

SPLC staff writer Kaitlin DeWulf can be reached by email or at (202) 974-6317.

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