A new law signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner puts the responsibility of the free press on high school student journalists exercising their right to free speech.
Retired Johnsburg High School journalism teacher Randy Swikle said student newspapers are forums for free expression.
Swikle said it’s OK for student journalists to make waves, “so long as they’re not tidal waves or tsunamis. We don’t want that. But stir things up, get people talking about the issues.”
Swikle is aware of too many examples where student-produced content was censored by school administrators “who have told students you can print anything you want so long as it’s not controversial, so long as it’s not critical of the school, so long as it’s not going to cause the principal any headache.”
Swikle said there are good examples of administrators not interfering with student journalists. He recalled a story in his school where the principal got a citation for drinking while operating a boat, a charge that was later dismissed.
“When the students came and they said that they were going to cover the story, he said ‘well I wish you wouldn’t, but that’s your job as journalists,’” Swikle said.
Swikle said that administrator chose to put the school mission above personal vulnerabilities he may have had.
Under the new law, Swikle said school officials can still prohibit publication of some material considered obscene or libelous, or that could cause major disruptions; but the law makes clear who’s responsible for the content.
“Now everyone in Illinois will say ‘this is the student’s perspective of issues and events at the school,” Swikle said. “It’s not necessarily the sentiments of the school administration.”
It's not just students' free speech and press rights reaffirmed, high school faculty who protect students' rights are also protected.
Before the law, Swikle said he saw too many examples of teachers “either fired or the situation made so uncomfortable they were driven away from advising student publications” when they stood by student journalists.
State law now provides that an employee of a school district can’t be punished for acting to protect a student journalist.