In 1983, the principal at Hazelwood East High School in suburban St. Louis censored two stories from the student newspaper. One concerned divorce, the other was about teen pregnancy. The students sued, claiming their First Amendment rights had been violated. Their case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where justices decided that school administrators had the right to exercise “prior restraint” in school-sponsored forums like student newspapers and assemblies.
A generation of student journalists have been hemmed in by that ruling. But last week, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed legislation that frees high school students from this restriction.
Stan Zoller, with the Illinois Journalism Education Association, helped guide the legislation.
“The law is pretty clear about what they can do. Libelous matter, obscene matter is what (legislators) seem to be concerned about. We didn’t want to turn it into a journalistic storming of the Bastille. The focus here is still very, very responsible journalism by scholastic journalists," Zoller says. “You know, now that the scholastic journalists have this capability, hopefully that’ll be a huge asset to them. And it’s especially important this year with the election fast approaching.”
The law also protects school officials and parents from liable claims except in cases of willful misconduct. The law still bans content that is libelous, slanderous or obscene, that incites unlawful activities or invades privacy. It passed through both chambers of the General Assembly without a single dissenting vote.
Illinois has become the 10th state to restore free speech rights to student media.