WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court passed up a chance today to decide if college
administrators can censor campus newspapers.
Justices declined without comment to review an appeal in Hosty
v. Carter filed by former collegiate journalists at Governors State
University, a public college in Illinois.
The students sued after a dean blocked the paper's printing in 2000 until she
could review the news stories. Campus journalists had written unflattering
stories in the Innovator about departments at the school in University
Park, south of Chicago, which has about 6,000 students.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the university
administration could regulate the newspaper's contents because it is published
under the auspices of Governors State.
The case would have been a follow-up to a 1988 ruling, Hazelwood
v. Kuhlmeier, that said public school officials could censor high school
Backers of the student journalists in the latest case argue that college is
"An uncensored college newspaper is vitally important to attracting college
students to journalism and providing them with a real-world training ground that
prepares them to become professional journalists," justices were told by lawyers
for media programs at Northwestern University, Pennsylvania State University,
the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Georgia, the University of
Missouri, and Syracuse University.
The student journalists — Jeni Porche, Margaret Hosty and Steven Barba — had
sued Patricia Carter, Governors State University's dean of student affairs. The
appeals court, overruling a district judge, found that Carter was shielded from
"Word has already begun to spread that the standard 'hands-off student media'
policies recognized by college officials in the past may no longer be required,"
attorney Richard Goehler told justices in a filing on behalf of many groups,
including the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Student Press Law Center
and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
SPLC Executive Director Mark Goodman said he was disappointed, but not surprised, by the Court's refusal to hear the case.
"I believed it would be close whether the Court would take the case," he told the First Amendment Center Online. "This was a good chance for the Court to settle the law in an area that everyone agrees is confusing. Either the Court felt that this wasn't the proper case or, more cynically on my part, the justices realized how complex and complicated this area of the law is and wanted more guidance from lower courts."
"Hazelwood should not apply to the student press," he added. "Our future depends on getting good decisions from other courts that conflict with the 7th Circuit ruling."
While some administrators may view the high court's refusal as a "green light to censor" student papers, Goodman said, the Court's decision may pose a bigger threat to small campus groups.
"The real fear is that the small student organization who wishes to bring in a controversial speaker or show an unpopular film will be silenced. Those student organizations will feel the impact more than the mainstream student media."
In the meantime, Goodman said, the SPLC will increase its efforts to get administrators to endorse student-press rights.
"This does present us with an opportunity to get more school officials to go on the record with regard to the freedom of the student press," he said.