SPRINGFIELD— When speaking to anyone who has taught journalism for more than a few years, Frank D. LoMonte said you’ll often hear about an experience they’ve had with a public school administrator telling them they can’t publish something that portrays the school in an unfavorable light or addresses a sensitive matter of political controversy.
Under the precedent from the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, administrators maintain that right. The case gave school officials the power to censor school-sponsored content if they had a “reasonable educational justification.”
“When you are a student in the public schools, and you’re using a communications medium that is provided by the school, like a newspaper or magazine or a yearbook that operates as an extension of the school curriculum, then the Supreme Court gives you virtually zero legal protection,” said LoMonte, the former director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., and current director of a media research center within the University of Florida’s journalism school.
The Supreme Court case set a high standard for student journalists but an easy burden for schools — the First Amendment will not come to a student’s rescue if the school decides certain content is unflattering, unfavorable or controversial.
“Some administrators were using [Hazelwood] as a way to say, ‘I don’t like the story. I don’t like what it portrays, you can’t run it,’” said Stan Zoller, a lecturer at Lake Forest College, who chaired the legislative committee for the Illinois Journalism Education Association.
That’s what happened a decade ago at a prominent student paper in the northwestern suburbs.
As a junior at Adlai E. Stevenson High School in 2009, Evan Ribot was managing editor of his award-winning school newspaper, The Statesman. During the fall semester, the administration at the Lincolnshire school told Ribot and his staff they could not publish stories they wrote on topics like honors students who smoke and drank, teen pregnancy and shoplifting.
At the time, there wasn’t a law protecting the student paper from the administration, and after months of the administration blocking the students’ right to publish, Ribot and his staff decided to quit the paper.
“Going back and forth with the administration and doing news interviews about it, they were overwhelming things for a bunch of 16- and 17-year-olds to be thinking about, in addition to thinking about school,” Ribot said of his experience. “And quitting, it was very painful and very difficult. But that is where it was finally resolved.”
In 2016, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Rights of Student Journalists Act, giving student journalists the right to exercise freedom of the press in school-sponsored media. The measure was sponsored by Democratic Rep. Will Guzzardi of Chicago, who was previously a journalist with Huffington Post before becoming a lawmaker.
“What we want are journalists who are willing to challenge authority, who are willing to ask the tough questions and report the truth, irrespective of what people in power think about that,” Guzzardi said. “In order to have those kinds of journalists, we need to have student journalists who get to abide by the same principles.”
LoMonte and Zoller both worked with Guzzardi and other lawmakers to help pass the measure.
“It just eliminates that two-tiered structure where journalism is in a uniquely unprotected position,” LoMonte said.
Ribot said he wishes he would have had a law protecting he and his staff, but is happy the legislature decided to take action years later to protect student journalists going forward.
“I think it sends a really, really positive message to educators and students alike, that what they’re doing when they put out a high school paper is serious and is meaningful,” Ribot said. “And it’s an important educational and learning experience.”
While the high court is supreme, individual states can choose to give more than the bare minimum of federally protected rights. States across the nation started to push back against Hazelwood in the mid-1990s. Illinois passed a student press freedom bill in 1997, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Jim Edgar.
In 2016, Illinois became one of 14 states that now has a law outlining the rights of the public school press. Illinois previously had existing protections for college journalists, but the bill added similar protections for younger students.
The law does not restrict a school from removing material that is considered libelous, obscene, invasive of privacy or likely to provoke disruptive or unlawful behavior.
And while the measure was put in place to protect students, it also helps them grow, according to Zoller.
“It raises the bar and I think it encourages journalists as a whole, especially student journalists, to really make sure that their T’s are crossed and I’s are dotted and that we’ve fact-checked well,” Zoller said.
Since the legislation passed in 2016, there have not been any cases taken to the courts in regard to student press freedom. But Zoller said he has seen individual cases where administrators have confiscated student papers arguing students have tried to use the law to their advantage.
In an instance where students feel their rights are violated, organizations like the Illinois Journalism Education Association offer students help.
Zoller said there have also been positive responses to the measure.
“There have been principals who understand this law and say they might not like the story the student is doing, but they know they have a right to publish it,” Zoller said. “They know we’ve got a good problem on their hands.”