Bad move: Court ruling threatens freedom of college media

“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

Thomas Jefferson

The winds of change blowing out of the chambers of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago just plain stink.

Freedom of speech on college campuses took a big hit June 20 when the 7th Circuit ruled that a U.S. Supreme Court decision dealing with high school journalism applied to some student media on college campuses. The decision gives administrators at public colleges and universities the ability to control any student media that is school-funded.

What does this mean for the Northern Light? Hopefully nothing.

To understand the impact of the current case, you need to return to the 1988 Supreme Court decision on Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.

That case was a clash between a suburban St. Louis high school and student journalists who were told they couldn’t write stories about drugs and teen pregnancy. The Supreme Court ruled 5-3 in favor of the administration because the paper was part of the school curriculum.

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The current case occurred in late 2000 when Patricia Carter, the dean of student affairs at Governors State University in Illinois, ordered the off-campus printer of the school paper, The Innovator, not to print any future issues until university officials had approved the content. The Innovator stopped publication in November 2000 because of Carter’s actions.

A group of Innovator staffers, including co-editor Margaret Hosty, filed suit in January 2001 claiming the university, more specifically Carter, had violated their constitutional right of a free press.

In Hosty v. Carter, the full panel of the 7th Circuit ruled 7-4 that the framework of Hazelwood “applies to subsidized student newspapers as well as elementary and secondary schools.” The decision came on an appeal by Carter after two other rulings in favor of Hosty and a free press.

It’s easy for the general public to take a First Amendment battle started by students lightly. But expanding the reach of the Hazelwood case to college media is troubling and unexpected.

After Hazelwood, First Amendment supporters were at least pleased the high court had explicitly left colleges and universities out of the decision. Ironically, the 7th Circuit had the opportunity to act because the Supreme Court left the debate open.

In 1994, the Student Press Law Center speculated that if a college or university administration went to court to extend the Hazelwood case to the college press, it would be in a “politically awkward position” and likely fail.

The SPLC wrote in the Law of the Student Press:

“For a court to do what the school requests, it would have to ignore or overrule over 20 years of established First Amendment decisions that emphasize the importance of freedom of the press.”

Well, the 7th Circuit did just that. And they did so somewhat condescendingly. Instead of opening with a discussion of the value of free speech and the First Amendment, the seven-judge majority instead jokingly wrote about the Innovator’s content and the name of the college.

“None of the articles concerned the apostrophe missing from the University’s name. Instead the students tackled meatier fare,” they wrote.

While the glib nature of the majority might be disheartening, the previous rulings have to show that the battle isn’t over.

If the UAA administration had the authority to censor articles via prior review, the Northern Light would probably be nothing more than a public relations tool for the university.

This year we reported on a campus suicide, the high cost of Chancellor Maimon’s installation ceremony, UAA’s initial failure to support student recycling programs and a rift between the women’s basketball coach and some of her players. It is doubtful those stories would have seen the light of day if the administration were in control of content.

The Hosty decision leaves UAA student media in some jeopardy because any publication that operates under the support of a public university is bound by it. It applies to in-class publications and also extracurricular activities, like the Northern Light.

Thankfully, both the paper and KRUA are funded via an $11 student media fee paid each semester, which was not the case at Governors State. Both the Northern Light and KRUA can make strong cases as public forums. Plus the UAA administration has been fairly supportive of student media.

But publications like True North, which is published by a Journalism and Public Communications magazine production class, is not as safe. Nor is Understory, a literary journal produced by the Creative Writing Department.

 

 

True North is a classroom-based magazine that relies on ad revenue to print. The Hosty ruling makes it possible for the university to pull the magazine off the racks with no recourse. Understory, which is funded through grant money, could have a single story or poem pulled by an upper-level administrator. From a First Amendment standpoint, the possibilities are terrifying.

As college journalists and supporters of free speech and a free press, we’re concerned about the long-term damage the case will cause. One only needs to examine the effects that Hazelwood has had on high-school media to understand the dangers of the Hosty decision.

Look at the effect Hazelwood has had on high-school students and newspapers since it was handed down. In 2005, more than a quarter of U.S. high schools don’t even offer any media programs to students.

Most shocking were the findings of a survey of over 100,000 high-school students released by the Knight Foundation in January. According to the survey, one in three U.S. high-school students say the press ought to be more restricted and more than a third say the government should approve newspaper stories before readers see them.

But looking at those stats in the framework of Hazelwood, is it really that surprising that teenagers are scarily unaware of their First Amendment rights? Gee, we wonder where they got the idea that the government should have control over newspaper content.

Hosty will now take the case to the Supreme Court.

If the Supreme Court doesn’t take the case, then student speech on college campuses within the 7th Circuit, which covers Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, will be greatly reduced. But the trouble wouldn’t end there because other courts might cite the decision as controlling precedent.

If the Supreme Court takes the case, the fate of college students’ First Amendment rights will rest on the decision of nine men and women. Let’s hope they breath new life into free speech and reverse the mistake their 7th Circuit colleagues made.