Schwarzenegger Signs California Law Protecting Free Expression at Universities

By on August 29, 2006

Yesterday, the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) reported that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill into law that would protect California students’ First Amendment rights. The law forbids any authority in the California university system from making or enforcing “any rule subjecting any student to disciplinary sanction solely on the basis of conduct that is speech or other communication that, when engaged in outside a campus of those institutions, is protected from governmental restriction by the First Amendment….” The law also forbids prior restraint of student speech, including student press, and allows students to sue for damages if their First Amendment rights are violated. 
 
The law was a reaction to the Hosty v. Carter decision of the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which applied the very weak free speech protections of a Supreme Court case dealing with high school students to the collegiate student press. As SPLC reports, shortly after the decision was passed down, Christine Helwick, general counsel of the California State University system, sent a memo to university presidents saying, “[T]he 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.”
 
FIRE, joined by numerous other organizations, filed an amicus curiae brief in the Seventh Circuit arguing that restrictions to high school journalists allowed by the Supreme Court would be anathema to “freedom of expression long recognized to be the essence of the university campus.”
 
In a policy position statement, FIRE described the Hosty decision as “a poorly conceived opinion that…will do serious harm to freedom of speech on campus far beyond the realm of student media.” The action taken by the governor and legislature of California eliminates this threat to freedom in California’s universities. Let’s hope other states take similar action to mitigate the chilling consequences of Hosty to free expression.