CHICAGO A federal appeals court yesterday upheld the right of campus editors at Governors State University to sue a dean on grounds that she illegally sought to review the student paper before it went to press.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that while the Supreme Court has placed limits on the free-speech rights of high school editors, the same restrictions should not necessarily apply to college editors.
"The differences between a college and a high school are far greater than the obvious differences in curriculum and extracurricular activities," Judge Terence T. Evans wrote for the three-judge panel in Hosty v. Carter.
The suit was filed by two former student editors, Margaret Hosty and Jeni Porche, and a onetime writer, Steven P. Barba.
Hosty and Porche became editors at the Innovator, the campus paper at the 6,000-student university, in May 2000.
They quickly launched investigations of what they claimed were improprieties at the school, including grade inflation and overly generous student stipends. Both sides agree that the claims stirred no controversy.
But relations with the administration soured. They got worse after the dean of student affairs, Patricia Carter, telephoned the printer and told him not to go to press until she had reviewed the contents of the paper.
The editors sued the university trustees and a number of school officials. U.S. District Judge Suzanne Conlon dismissed the civil charges against all the defendants except Carter.
Lawyers from the Illinois attorney general's office appealed that ruling, citing the doctrine of qualified immunity.
Qualified immunity protects government officials performing their jobs if their conduct does not violate clearly established statutes or constitutional rights about which a reasonable person would have known.
The student editors, lacking money to hire an attorney, filed their own response to the attorney general's appeal. In its opinion, the appeals court cited a "superb" friend-of-the-court brief filed by attorney Richard M. Goehler on behalf of the Student Press Law Center of Arlington, Va.
Both the American Society of Newspaper Editors and the Associated Press Managing Editors Association signed onto the law center brief.
The brief pointed to the landmark 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which found that some limits could be placed on the First Amendment rights of high school editors.
The brief said those restrictions should not apply to college editors.
The appeals court said that "treating these students like 15-year-old high-school students and restricting their First Amendment rights by an unwise extension of Hazelwood would be an extreme step for us to take absent more direction from the Supreme Court."
When the dispute began, Republican Jim Ryan was attorney general. Melissa Merz, press secretary to new Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a Democrat, said no decisions on any further appeal had been made so far.
"We're going to take a good look at the opinion and then we'll go from there," Merz said.
Mike Hiestand, an attorney for the Student Press Law Center, described the opinion as "a major victory for the student press."
Hosty and Porche expressed elation over their victory.
"I'm agog, I'm flabbergasted," Hosty said. "We have maintained all along that what the university was saying was nonsense."
University spokesman Michael Hopkins was not reached for comment immediately. An office worker at the university said he would try to locate him.