New Law Clarifies Free Speech Rights of Public High School Student Journalists

By August 8, 2016 News No Comments

On July 29, 2016, the Governor signed into law the Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act. This new law (P.A. 99-0678), effective immediately, protects the free speech rights of public high school students who “gather, compile, write, edit, photograph, record, or prepare information for dissemination in school-sponsored media.” Specifically, the law guarantees student journalists 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. The law prohibits prior restraint (i.e., censoring) of material prepared for school publications, unless the material:

  1. is libelous, slanderous, or obscene;
  2. constitutes an unwarranted invasion of privacy;
  3. violates federal or state law; or
  4. incites students to commit an unlawful act, to violate policies of the school district, or to materially and substantially disrupt the orderly operation of the school.

The law also specifically allows the advisor of any school-sponsored media to teach professional standards of English and journalism to the student journalists. Finally, expressions made by students are not deemed to be expressions of school policy under the law, and school districts cannot be held liable for such student expressions, except in cases of willful or wanton misconduct.

This law may impact at a state level the longtime standard set forth by the United States Supreme Court in the 1988 landmark case of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. In Hazelwood, a school administrator prevented the publication of a school newspaper containing articles about divorce and teenage pregnancy that were tied to students and parents in the community. The student journalists asserted a First Amendment claim and challenged the decision to censor the articles. The Supreme Court ruled against the students, however, concluding that, because the newspaper was sponsored by the school and therefore might appear to bear the imprimatur of the school, school officials had a legitimate right to censor articles it deemed inappropriate.

Although Hazelwood remains good law generally, it is directly impacted in Illinois by the Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act. School officials, and especially advisors of student publications, should therefore familiarize themselves with the contours of the Illinois law in preparation for the upcoming school year.

For your questions related to student free speech and student journalists, please contact Rob Swain and Kaitlin Atlas.

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