The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

The student media organization of California State University Northridge

Daily Sundial

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Assembly bills could protect student speech

Two bills that could expand the rights of student publications were introduced to the California Legislature recently.

The bills, sponsored by the California Newspaper Publishers Association, were written to protect the free speech rights of students who write for college publications.

Assembly Bill 2581, authored by Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, and co-authored by Assemblymember Joe Nation, D-San Rafael, would prohibit the censorship of student newspapers at California public colleges and universities.

AB 2612, authored by Assemblymember George Plescia, R-San Diego, would prohibit the theft of free newspapers.

Adam Keigwin, press secretary to Assemblymember Yee Keigwin, said the press-rights bill AB 2581 was a reaction to a ruling from the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in June 2005 that applied a high school standard of censorship to public universities.

High school newspapers have narrower First Amendment free speech rights than other publications; school administrators have a right to censor student newspapers.

Even though the 7th Circuit’s decision is not applicable in California, 10 days after the June decision, a memo was sent to CSU presidents by CSU general counsel Christine Helwick, citing the possible effects of the ruling.

“The case appears to signal that CSU campuses may have more latitude than previously believed to censor the content of subsidized student newspapers, provided that there is an established practice of regularized content review and approval for pedagogical purposes,” Helwick said.

As the sponsor of the bills, the CNPA originally proposed the ideas to California legislators, said Tom Newton, CNPA general counsel. The two legislators, Plescia and Yee, then drafted the language of the bills for introduction to the Legislature.

Both bills were presented to the state Assembly on Feb. 24. The newspaper-theft bill was sent to the committee on public safety March 14, and the press-rights bill was sent to the judiciary committee on March 20, according to the state Senate website.

Adam Keigwin, press secretary to Assemblymember Yee, said that Yee will continue to modify the text of the press-rights bill over the next few days, “to make crystal clear that we want to protect college newspapers.”

Keigwin said the bills can continue to be amended until they are approved by both the state assembly and Senate and sent to the governor for ratification.

The press-rights bill amends the language of Education Code 66301, which protects the speech of public college and university students off campus. Under the revised language, the bill would also explicitly prevent censorship of any student publication.

Newton said the press-rights bill was being formulated before Helwick’s letter was sent out to CSU campuses.

The press-rights bill, however, would prevent campuses from acting upon Helwick’s letter, said Christopher Shortell, political science professor, who teaches courses in constitutional law and judicial process.

“Any statutory assistance from the Legislature is going to make it clear that the CSU does not have anymore leeway (to censor student publications),” Shortell said.

The theft bill would make it a crime to take more than five copies of a free newspaper with the intent to recycle them for cash or other payment, to sell or barter the newspapers, and to deprive others of the ability to read or enjoy the newspapers or to harm a business competitor.

First violations would constitute an infraction amounting to a fine of $250.

Second violations would constitute either an infraction or misdemeanor, punishable by either a fine of $500, or 10 days in county jail or both. Courts would also have the power to substitute 20 or 40 hours of community service in lieu of fines or jail time.

The law would not apply to any person who has express permission from the publisher to take more than five copies.

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, a student press rights group, said that existing laws have not made it clear to law enforcement officials that free newspapers can be stolen.

“There have been problems with police and prosecutors saying you can’t steal free newspapers,” Goodman said.

Goodman referred to several instances where free newspapers had been taken in California.

One instance involved approximately 30,000 copies of the Chula Vista Star being removed from its racks over three separate periods. When the publisher complained to police, the authorities said they were powerless to do anything.

“(This bill would) decrease the likelihood that police or prosecutors would say ‘Oh, we can’t do anything about it,'” Goodman said.

As proposed statutory laws and not California constitutional amendments, it is possible for the bills to be overturned, however unlikely, by a later legislature even if they pass this year, said Shortell.

“When it’s a statute, it’s not a constitutional protection,” Shortell said.

Statutes offer valuable protections, but are easier to overturn than constitutional amendments, Shortell stated.

“It’s a lot easier to get a statute enacted,” Goodman said. “It may just be a matter of what is the most likely to pass.”

If approved by their respective committees, the bills will then be sent to the house floor for a final vote. Once a bill has passed in its house of origin, it must be passed in the second house following the same procedure before it can be presented to the governor for ratification.

If enacted this year, the bills will take effect beginning Jan. 1, 2007, Newton said.

Assemblymembers Nation and Plescia were unavailable for comment despite numerous calls. Assemblymember Yee declined to comment on specifics at press time.

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