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Colleges may review content of some student papers

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   SEVENTH CIRCUIT   ·   Prior Restraints   ·   June 23, 2005

Colleges may review content of some student papers

  • University-funded student newspapers may be subject to content review by school administrators under the same standards as high school publications, a divided federal appellate court ruled Monday.

June 23, 2005  ·   School-funded college newspapers may be edited by administrators if the newspaper is not a designated public forum, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago (7th Cir.) ruled 7-4 Monday, expanding the scope of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the landmark 1988 Supreme Court ruling regarding high-school newspapers. Plans to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court already are underway.

Universities should not be required to fund publications containing messages that the school does not ideologically support, the majority ruled, citing Hazelwood, which holds that high school faculty may editorially control school newspapers provided the paper is not a public forum and the editing serves a pedagogical purpose.

The Seventh Circuit ruling runs counter to previous appellate rulings in the First and Sixth circuits, which state that Hazelwood has little or no application to college papers.

The Seventh Circuit case arose in 2001 after administrators at Governors State University in University Park, Ill., became frustrated with a story in the student Innovator questioning the integrity of a college dean. The administration refused to continue funding the publication unless it could review the paper’s content prior to publication. Three Innovator student journalists sued the university and its dean of student affairs, claiming the dean had knowingly violated their right to free speech by conditioning the paper’s funding on prior review. The district court held that Hazelwood did not apply to college publications and found that the dean violated the students’ First Amendment rights.

Writing for the appellate court, Judge Frank Easterbrook said that the district court had interpreted Hazelwood too narrowly. The court applied the Hazelwood test to the Innovator, finding the paper to be a limited-purpose public forum because the Innovator’s charter stated that it should be published “without censorship or advance approval,” and because school rules never provided for the paper to be supervised by an administrator. The court found that a newspaper’s status as an extra-curricular activity does not necessarily determine its public forum designation.

The court also found that the dean of student affairs had reasonably misunderstood the application of Hazelwood, ruling that she had a qualified immunity for her actions against the Innovator.

Writing for the dissent, Judge Terence Evans criticized the majority’s expansion of Hazelwood. He wrote that a distinction exists between high school and college publications because unlike high school teachers, university administrators should not be concerned that college-aged audiences need protection from controversial or disturbing messages. He also argued that the goal of colleges is to promote the advancement of ideas and independent thought, a mission that is compromised by administrative editorial control over student publications.

In a statement made to the Student Press Law Center Tuesday, one of the Innovator student journalists said she was dismayed by the decision, but said she and her co-plaintiffs are planning an appeal to the highest court.

Richard Goehler, an attorney working with the Student Press Law Center, said he and other student press advocates are “fully committed to pushing ahead with the amici in support of the students.” Goehler wrote an amicus brief on behalf of the SPLC and other media organizations, including the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

(Hosty v. Carter, Media Counsel: Richard Goehler, Frost Brown Todd LLC, Cincinnati)AG

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