Supreme Court won’t hear college censorship case

The U.S. Supreme Court decided not to review a lower court decision Tuesday that gave officials at Governors State University in Illinois authority to censor student journalists.

A June 2005 decision by the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals allowed standards previously used for censorship standards for high school and elementary school newspapers to be used to squelch criticisms of the Illinois university’s administration. The case, Hosty v. Carter, marks the first time that such censorship standards have been extended to the college and university level.

The Supreme Court’s decision not to hear the case means that the direct effects of the Seventh Circuit’s ruling are limited to Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

Student journalists Margaret Hosty, Jeni Porche and Steven Barba originally sued Governors State in January 2001, after Dean Patricia Carter told the printer of the university’s newspaper, The Innovator, to hold future issues until a university official had approved its contents. The Innovator had published both news stories and editorials critical of the Governors State administration. Carter’s actions were in spite of a university policy that said the student newspaper staff “will determine content and format of their respective publications without censorship or advance approval.”

In the case, Illinois Attorney General James Ryan asked the court to extend the precedents in the Supreme Court’s 1988 landmark decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier to college media. In the Hazelwood decision, the nation’s top court ruled that high school administrators have the right to censor content in a high school newspaper if the newspaper is not established as a “forum for public expression.”

The Hosty v. Carter case made its way to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, where a three-judge panel ruled in April 2003 in favor of the students. But in June 2005 an 11-judge panel reversed the earlier panel’s decision, siding with the university administration.

In a seven-judge majority, the court ruled that the Hazelwood decision did apply to college newspapers, unless the newspaper is a “designated public forum.” Even if The Innovator were a public forum, the court ruled, Carter would be entitled to immunity from damages for censoring the paper because she could not have reasonably known that the Hazelwood decision did not apply to college and university student publications.

The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case is a mixed blessing for the campus media at Portland State, said Judson Randall, student publications adviser. Considering the current Supreme Court’s conservative bent, particularly with the addition of judges Samuel Alito and John Roberts, Randall worried that they would uphold the Midwest court’s ruling.

Though the scope of the Hosty v. Carter case will stay in the states in the Seventh Circuit, proponents of First Amendment rights in academia are sure to react to Tuesday’s decision.

“I think it’s absolutely ludicrous that the issue is even in question,” said Josh Gross, editor of The Rearguard, a left-leaning monthly newspaper at PSU. “Why is it that the First Amendment rights of students are considered flexible, but no one else?”

Gross said that instilling a sense of responsibility in the press coupled with a general understanding of the importance of outside critical analysis will be more effective than bureaucratic measures and litigations.

“We need to consider as a society what message decisions like Hazelwood or Hosty v. Carter send to our future journalists,” said Matt Petrie, editor-in-chief of the Vanguard. “Censorship policies, especially at the high school and college level, teach budding reporters and editors that free speech is not a valued tenet of society, that they should fear authority and not step on anyone’s toes, exactly the opposite of what we should be teaching them.”

While the Hosty v. Carter decision could be far reaching and has sparked concern from student journalist and college media advisers, it appears unlikely that the decision will have any immediate effect on PSU specifically.

Because the court ruled that the Hazelwood decision only applies if newspapers have not been declared a “public forum,” the Portland State Student Publications Board amended its charter this year to specifically designate the university’s student publications as public forums. Randall described this change as an extra insurance policy for freedom of speech at PSU.

Portland State President Daniel Bernstine has never made an attempt to censor content in the university’s student publications, and has frequently made statements upholding the right of the publications to choose their content.

“There is no question that the decision to include the editorial in the newspaper was within the proper purview of the editorial staff. The value and tradition of our right of free speech and free press, including the prohibition of prior censorship, are very important,” Bernstine wrote in a letter to the editor to the Vanguard last fall, in reaction to an opinion piece he found offensive.