Illinois Enacts Law to Protect Student Journalists Rights

Last month, New Jersey celebrated free speech with the consideration of a bill that will allow student journalists to exercise editorial control over content in school publications. Illinois is following suit with the passing of a law that grants students in their state the same power.

The Speech Rights of Student Journalists act, which was signed into law by Governor Bruce Rauner and is effective immediately, will allow student journalists the ability to make executive decisions about editorial content in their schools’ publications without fear of school administrative intervention that could lead to censorship of content. As noted, the law:

Provides that a student journalist has the right to exercise freedom of speech and of the press in school-sponsored media, regardless of whether the media is supported financially by the school district or by use of school facilities or produced in conjunction with a class in which the student is enrolled.

Furthermore, the law:

Provides that a student journalist is responsible for determining the news, opinion, feature, and advertising content of school-sponsored media.

More than just protecting students’ rights to exercise freedom of speech, the law will also prevent academic advisors or school district employees from termination or discipline for upholding students’ rights.

The initial act, spearheaded by the Illinois Journalism Education Association (IJEA), came in response to the alarming trend of administrative backlash to student press occurring across the United States. From a high school newspaper in Missoula County, Montana, being recalled for its article “Free the Nipple,” which explored the timely topic of public perceptions about the exposed female nipple, to the precedent set by the 1988 Illinois case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which determined that student journalists operate in limited sphere for freedom of expression and as such their editorial content could be regulated as school administrators deemed necessary, a culture of censorship has been fostered in secondary academic systems.

Despite this trend, free speech organizations like IJEA and New Voices of Illinois see the value in fighting for student’s rights to free speech. IJEA member Stan Zoller notes that the passing of the law will enable students to not only exercise their rights but also become better journalists. “High school journalists have that chance to write responsibly. They have to focus on that responsibility without the threat of being censored,” Zoller says. “It raises the bar for journalism both from an education standpoint, and the expectation as to what news consumers will get.”

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Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!