Support the Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act

by Shawn P. Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar, Robert R. McCormick Foundation


Student voice, and First Amendment freedoms more broadly, are all too often shut out at the schoolhouse gate. As we seek to foster students’ civic development through the new high school civics course requirement and revised state social science standards, we must also confront the reality that democracy is rarely practiced in the hallways and corridors beyond the civics classroom. This is itself is a lesson in democracy, albeit a damaging one.

Fortunately, we have another opportunity to reverse this trajectory by advocating on behalf of the Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act (HB-5902) in the Illinois General Assembly. The legislation passed the House unanimously and awaits consideration in the Senate Judiciary Committee as early as tomorrow (Tuesday May 24).

Some of you might ask why a civic learning advocate is supporting a scholastic journalism bill. The answer is simple: a free press is essential for democratic governance, and our public schools are government institutions charged with preparing young people for their roles as lifelong participants in our democracy.

Moreover, this legislation, and the harmful Supreme Court decision it attempts to overturn (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier), transcends student media. The Hazelwood decision empowered administrators to censor student speech through school-sponsored channels (publications, plays, commencement ceremonies, etc.) for “legitimate pedagogical purposes.”

This invitation to censor has been wielded irresponsibly in too many cases, stifling student voice and simultaneously weakening their democratic agency.

Indeed, the Association for Education in Journalism & Mass Communication (AEJMC) passed the following resolution on the 25th anniversary of the Hazelwood decision in 2013:

The Board of Directors of AEJMC declares that no legitimate pedagogical purpose is served by the censorship of student journalism even if it reflects unflatteringly on school policies and programs, candidly discusses sensitive social and political issues, or voices opinions challenging to majority views on matters of public concern. The censorship of such speech is detrimental to effective learning and teaching, and it cannot be justified by reference to “pedagogical concerns.”

The Speech Rights of Student Journalists Act maintains limitations for speech that presents a “material and substantial disruption” to the school environment, including libel, obscenity, and invasion of privacy.

Similar laws already exist in ten states and the District of Columbia, and concerns raised by opponents in Illinois and elsewhere never surfaced in spite of 170-plus combined years under this middle-ground standard.

The time to add Illinois to the mix of states that respect student voice and respect vibrant and free scholastic journalism is now. To learn more on how you can help advance HB-5902, search for the “New Voices Illinois” Facebook page, follow @ILNewVoices via Twitter, and visit the Illinois Journalism Association’s website, IJEA.org.

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