firstamendmentcenter.org: Free speech on public college campuses - Topic FAQs


Student newspapers & yearbooks

What about independent student newspapers or fliers? Can schools control their distribution?

Yes and no. Public universities may not completely prevent students from independently printing and distributing written materials on their campus, but they may impose reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions on their distribution. For example, a school may establish certain places on campus as the proper locations for those wishing to pass out written materials, or they may prohibit distribution at times where it could reasonably block the passage of students to and from classes. But the open spaces of a college campus are generally presumed to be an open forum for the purpose of student expression, including written expression.


Are college journalists entitled to all the same liberties as professional journalists?

In almost all situations, yes. Some states may not afford student journalists the right to protect the identity of their sources against a court’s subpoena, but almost every other privilege of the professional press may not legally be denied to members of the student press.


How independent are public college/university-operated electronic media?

It largely depends on who has been given the responsibility to maintain or oversee the media. Where universities have given control of television studios, radio stations or Internet sites to student supervisors, they have limited their right to interfere with that supervision, even where the supervisor allows material of which the administration disapproves. But with the law still somewhat unsettled regarding public college print media, it is unclear what would happen if a public college or university decided to censor the campus electronic media or to discipline students responsible for disseminating objectionable material.


What if other students try to prevent distribution of student publications that they find offensive?

Many college campuses continue to deal with the problem of students' confiscating newspapers to prevent the circulation of stories or ideas that they find offensive. Every year cases are reported where entire runs of a publication are stolen, depriving the campus of the opportunity to even consider what was published. Unfortunately, very few of these instances have resulted in meaningful punishment of the offenders.

The problem in punishing those who steal papers is twofold. From the legal perspective, it is difficult to successfully prosecute the perpetrators for theft, as the newspapers are distributed free to whoever chooses to pick one (or 1,000) up. Prosecutors in a handful of cases have used charges of criminal mischief and vandalism, in addition to the more conventional theft charges, to secure punishment for those responsible for stealing papers. But the vast majority of such incidents go unheard by courts of law. Some universities have been accused of downplaying the importance of mass newspaper thefts out of fear of further offending various groups.