College Newspapers Vulnerable to Censorship
Supreme Court decision potentially censors college papers
March 3, 2006 3:21 PM
College and university publications across the country may be vulnerable to censorship due to the Supreme Court’s denial to hear an appeal on a case involving student journalists.
The case, Hosty v. Carter, concerned three students from the Governors State University campus newspaper, “The Innovator,” who in 2000 sued the dean of student affairs after she insisted on reviewing the paper’s content before publication. The dean made this demand after the newspaper published material critical of the Illinois university’s administration and instructed the printer not to publish any more copies of “The Innovator.”
The court decided in favor of the dean, citing a 1988 Supreme Court case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which gave elementary and secondary school authorities the power to censor school-sponsored newspapers and other publications.
This decision sets a precedent that college journalists may be treated the same way as high school journalists. The minority opinion of the ruling stated that the Hazelwood case should not apply since there are significant differences in the personal maturity of high school students and college students.
Also of concern about the court citing the Hazelwood case is the vague description used in the decision allowing administrators to censor “unprotected” speech, according to Mike Hiestand, a legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center.
Under the ruling, administration has the right to restrict not just the usual libelous and obscene speech, but can also censor writing if it is deemed “ungrammatical,” “biased or prejudiced,” “poorly written,” “inconsistent with the shared values of civilized order,” as well as anything written that associates the school with “any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy.”
According to a statement by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a possible consequence will be any university administration that is bristled by negative news brought to light by the student paper may result in restrictions in future speech.
This ruling contradicts a 1972 Supreme Court decision stating that the college environment is a marketplace of ideas and in need of uninhibited expression.
On Feb. 21 the Supreme Court denied to even hear the appeal of the students, sending a wave of concern throughout many organizations concerned about First Amendment rights. Both the Student Press Law Center and the College Media Advisors Inc. have made statements condemning the court’s decision, citing that this will cause extreme harm to the quality of journalism produced on campuses.
Although the case only applies to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which presides over Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, talk of the precedent the case may set has already rippled through the country and made its way to the CSU system.
David Greene, executive director of the First Amendment Project and a lecturer at SF State, said he would be surprised if the Supreme Court’s decision does not affect college journalism in areas other than the three states under jurisdiction.
“This case is disturbing for college journalists and opens the door for other courts to analyze cases using this decision,” Greene said. “It is inevitable that the reasoning in Hosty v. Carter will carry over to other court decisions.”
According to the Student Press Law Center, 10 days after the case was decided last June in favor of the dean’s right to prior review, the CSU’s general counsel, Christine Helwick, sent a memo to presidents of the CSU campuses that stated, “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.”
The CSU does not have a system-wide policy regarding the amount of influence the university administration can have on a student-run publication.
“Each campus has the liberty to manage the relationship with the campus newspaper,” Clara Potes-
Fellow, director of media relations for the CSU, said.
According to journalism department Chair John Burks, SF State has a tradition of press freedom for student-run publications regardless of what the law says.
“In all my years on the faculty, no administrator has moved to stop publication or censor content,” Burks said.
Students of SF State publications have the authority to decide what to cover, which stories to assign, which photos to publish, and how to edit stories, according to Burks.
“We figure the best way for you to learn journalism and take responsibility is for you to exercise those things right here, right now, in the [X]press newsroom,” Burks said.
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