Less-than-free speech on college campuses

March 27, 2000|By Larry Atkins

MOST PEOPLE assume that college campuses are safe havens for free speech and enlightened debate. In the case of student newspapers and publications, however, college administrators often try to control these publications to avoid controversy or articles putting the school in a bad light.

In October 1998, student editors at Neumann College in suburban Philadelphia temporarily suspended publication of the school newspaper after school administrators demanded prior review in reaction to a controversial editorial cartoon. The demand for prior review was withdrawn after the student editors agreed to develop a mission statement for the paper and form a student and faculty advisory board.

Earlier this month at Morgan State University, the school's student activities coordinator and student government association president ordered the school newspaper's printer to delay delivery of an issue of the paper until after a school election because they were concerned that the issue contained candidate endorsements.

In 1988, school officials at Muhlenberg College pulled the school newspaper from the school Web site after the online newspaper published articles critical of the school.

That same year, at the University of Rhode Island, student protesters and the student senate executive committee requested a formal apology from the school newspaper for running a racist cartoon. The senate chairman temporarily froze the paper's student senate account for the rest of the semester.

In the past, federal and state courts have consistently recognized First Amendment protections for students at public colleges and universities, and courts have allowed public college administrators to censor student media only when they can demonstrate that some significant and imminent physical disruption of the campus will result from the publication's content.

Censorship of college publications has not been allowed even when the material was obscene, offensive, libelous, or of poor quality. Courts have ruled that colleges may not suspend a student editor for publishing controversial articles, withdraw funding because of a school newspaper's offensive content or censor the content of a student publication.

Since the First Amendment prevents only the government and its agents from denying a person his or her free speech rights, First Amendment guarantees of free speech and press do not apply to private colleges and universities.

A recent federal court decision has concerned First Amendment advocates and college newspapers around the country. School officials at Kentucky State University stopped distribution of the yearbook and attempted to stop the school newspaper from publishing editorials and comic strips critical of school officials. KSU students sued the university in federal court, alleging that the ban of the yearbook and the alleged control of the newspaper violated their First Amendment rights. In Kincaid vs. Gibson, the Kentucky federal District Court ruled in favor of the university.

Regarding the newspaper, the court determined that the students did not have standing to sue because the articles were published and the school administration had not required the contents of the paper to be submitted to them for approval.

As for the yearbook, the court relied on a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision on high school press censorship, Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier, to rule that plaintiffs' First Amendment claim failed because -- like high school newspapers -- the yearbook was not a public forum, and the school's refusal to distribute it was a reasonable restriction of speech.

In Hazelwood, the Supreme Court allowed high schools to enforce reasonable censorship of student publications if there was a compelling educational reason to do so. The Supreme Court in Hazelwood stated that its decision addressed only the First Amendment protection available to school-sponsored high school publications, and it specifically left open the issue of whether the same standards would apply to college student media.

In September 1999, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed the District Court's decision in the Kincaid case in a three-judge opinion, but in November the Sixth Circuit voted to grant a re-hearing before appellate judges.

Twenty six organizations that are concerned about the implications of Kincaid on the college press, including the Student Press Law Center, have filed an appellate brief in support of the plaintiff students. They are concerned that if college officials can censor a yearbook, they could rely on the Hazelwood standard to control viewpoints expressed in other school-sponsored forums, including the school newspaper.

Irrespective of legislative mandates, court rulings or protections of free expression contained in state constitutions, school administrators should honor First Amendment principles and allow a free press on campus. They should trust its students to act responsibly.

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