A recent court ruling that threw out the case of three university students who accused their former dean of First Amendment violations has set a precedent that could allow university administrations to censor and control the content of student papers.
The former editors of the Innovator, the now defunct newspaper at Governors State University in Chicago, sued former Dean Patricia Carter in 2000 after she effectively de-funded the newspaper by refusing to pay the publisher for any issues printed without prior administrative approval of content.
The Seventh Circuit Court ruled in the editors’ favor in 2003, citing among other things that their school’s “Student Communications Media Board” guaranteed that editors would “determine content…without censorship or advance approval,” according to court documents. However, Carter appealed and on June 20, the same court reversed their decision granting Carter qualified immunity on the basis that certain laws regarding censorship of student publications were unclear enough that she may not have known that she was acting illegally. The students now plan to take their case to the Supreme Court.
In both rulings, the court was asked to see if findings in a 1988 Supreme Court case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which ruled that high school administrators could censor news publications on the grounds that they were not “designated public forums,” could be applied to university students. Though in 2003 the court found Hazelwood inapplicable, the decision was reversed this year affecting the states of Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin.
“I do think that this case is going to have implications far beyond the newspapers. Any group funded by student fees could feel this,” said Mark Goodman, executive director for the Student Press Law Center. He is among many who think that this decision could have dire consequences for the free speech rights of public university students, should the court’s interpretation of the ruling spread to other states. “The scary thing is this court extending [the precedent set by] the high school ruling to the college level. That’s what I find most troubling.”
People involved with student publications at PSU are safe from administrative intervention. The attitude of the administration at PSU regarding student groups and publications seems fairly hands-off. “I can’t think of any situation that would warrant censorship,” said Rod Diman, special assistant to the President Bernstine.
“I believe student publications at PSU are protected [from censorship] through the Publicity Board and its charter,” said Judson Randall, adviser to all student publications at PSU. The charter, which “gives the Publications Board all powers of publication and takes them out of the hands of the administration,” was formed in 1988 to protect student publications after the resignation of PSU President Natale Sicuro, who had threatened the Vanguard’s autonomy after it had run articles critical of his administration, according to Randall.
Still, in light of the recent court ruling, Randall said that he will suggest to the Publications Board this fall that they change the charter’s preamble to specifically include the phrase “designated public forum.”
Reactions to the ruling are mixed at Portland State. Josh Gross, the editor for the Rearguard, disagrees with the ruling and thinks that that the laws regarding censorship are too vague. “[Laws] need to be laid out strictly and clearly or else they get abused… It makes a publication operate in a state of fear.”
However, he says he feels protected at PSU. “Based on old, flagrant articles, I’d say we’re pretty secure. I might even tone it down here a little.”
Shahriyar Smith, editor of the PSU conservative monthly magazine the Portland Spectator, said that it is important to protect the freedom of speech on college campuses, but that this recent court ruling is “sane” and that “the university does have a right to control what it subsidizes,” even through the use of student fees. Still, he says he “wouldn’t anticipate that the case would have an adverse affect on [freedom of expression] on campus,” either here or in the states of the Seventh Circuit Court.