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University violated First Amendment by impounding student yearbooks

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    NMU         SIXTH CIRCUIT         Newsgathering         Jan 5, 2001    

University violated First Amendment by impounding student yearbooks

  • Collegiate media cannot be subject to the same official controls that public high school media are limited by, a federal appellate court ruled.

In a case that makes clear that collegiate media are not subject to the same strict controls as high school publications, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Cincinnati (6th Cir.) ruled on Dec. 5 that Kentucky State University officials violated the First Amendment when the officials confiscated all copies of the student yearbook in November 1994.

The appeals court rejected the university’s contention that officials possessed the authority to take the yearbooks because they were disappointed with its quality and content. Writing for the 10-3 majority, Judge R. Guy Cole declined to extend the analysis from Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case allowing administrators to control public high school news media, because a “university environment is the quintessential marketplace of ideas which merits full, or indeed heightened, First Amendment protection.”

The high court in Hazelwood had ruled that a newspaper published by a public high school constituted a “nonpublic forum,” meaning it can be subject to content regulation by the administration.

In November 1994, about 2,000 copies of the 1992-94 edition of The Thorobred were removed from the student publishers and locked in a university storage room. About four months later, the plaintiffs sued the university.

The appeals court reversed an earlier panel judgment and determined that the yearbook was not a nonpublic forum, but rather a limited public forum, subject only to either reasonable content-neutral time, place, and manner regulations, or to content-based regulations that are narrowly tailored to serve a compelling governmental interest. The court found that the complete confiscation of the entire yearbook press run could not be considered a reasonable restriction or a narrowly crafted regulation.

“Rather, wholesale confiscation of printed materials which the state feels reflect poorly on its institutions is as broadly sweeping a regulation as the state might muster,” the court ruled.

(Kincaid v. Gibson; Media Counsel: D. Bruce Orwin, Somerset, Ky.) ML

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