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By Dave Roland
Contributing writer

Schools at all levels often allow distribution of student-run newspapers, literary magazines and yearbooks on their campus as part of the intellectual and social development of their students. Where students edit and produce the publications, they may run afoul of campus administrators if they publish controversial material.

Some administrators have exercised prior restraint against publications to block inflammatory items from appearing; others have punished student editorial staffers after the offending material has been published. Either way, the question arises: How much freedom do public college campus publications have?

The legal question hinges upon what sort of forum the school created in sponsoring its publications. Because no U.S. Supreme Court cases directly address the question of administrative control over student-run publications at public colleges, legal scholars trying to sort out this issue look first at the situation in high schools.

High schools generally have been considered non-public forums. A non-public forum allows for some individual expression, but the state reserves the right to monitor closely what is expressed, and to suppress it if it is deemed destructive of the narrow purpose of the forum.

Though stating unequivocally that students are not required to “check their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door,” the Supreme Court has determined that students’ freedom of speech and press must be balanced against the interests of the schools in maintaining institutional order and a good learning environment. In Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), the Court found that high school administrators do not violate the First Amendment when they censor or punish students for the content of their school-sponsored expression, so long as the school’s reason for censoring the student expression is related to a legitimate educational interest. In a footnote, the Supreme Court noted that it was not deciding whether its ruling applied to student expression at public colleges and universities.

In light of this refusal, federal appeals courts have tended to find that the Kuhlmeier and Fraser rulings are generally inapplicable to college campuses.

A recent example of this sort of reasoning is the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Kincaid v. Gibson, a 2001 case in which a university refused to distribute the published copies of its student-produced yearbook. The administration, displeased with the editor’s choice of design and format, confiscated the yearbooks and kept them in a secret location rather than deliver them to students. The administrators relied upon Hazelwood in claiming that the yearbook was a non-public forum, and that therefore its publication and distribution was not protected by the First Amendment. The U.S. District Court, persuaded by this argument, held that Hazelwood applied to public institutions of higher education. But the full 6th Circuit, hearing the case for the purpose of deciding if Hazelwood applied to the facts of Kincaid, cited the 1st Circuit’s 1989 decision in Student Government Ass’n v. Board of Trustees of the University of Massachusetts in determining that the lower court was mistaken — that college journalists were not subject to the same limitations as high school journalists.

Several courts have ruled that although a public college may require pre-publication submission to an adviser for comments on form and style, what goes into the paper must remain at the sole discretion of the student editors, free from external censorship. It is presumed that although these student-run publications are not traditional public forums open to all, they are created to give students the opportunity to find their own voices through reporting and discussion of issues important to their campus and local community.

Universities are not required to support student papers, literary magazines or yearbooks, nor are they absolutely required to continue support of them once they have been created, but (as is the case with visiting campus speakers) where such publications have created a forum for groups or individuals, public colleges may not prevent funding or distribution because they dislike the messages transmitted in that forum.

However, the legal landscape became murkier in June 2005 when the full 7th Circuit ruled in Hosty v. Carter that “Hazelwood’s framework applies to subsidized student newspapers as well as elementary and secondary schools.” The en banc decision overruled an April 2003 ruling by a three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit, which had found that Hazelwood had no application to the college press.

The student journalists in Hosty petitioned for Supreme Court review, but the Court declined to hear their appeal on Feb. 21, 2006. The Supreme Court’s inaction means that the Hosty decision stands.

Student-press advocates warn that the decision could have far ramifications for all student expression on college campuses that is considered school-sponsored. The decision may embolden other administrators to censor other student expression, claiming it is not a public forum. Time will tell how damaging the precedent will be to campus press freedom.

In a 2000 case only indirectly affecting public college press freedom, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin v. Southworth, the Supreme Court held that a university was not required to refund student-activity fees to the extent that they were used to fund a newspaper whose editorial opinions grossly offended some students. This finding suggested that the university’s interest in affirming the freedoms of speech and press for its students outweighed the interests of students who might be offended by the exercise of those rights.

(Updated by David L. Hudson Jr., March 2006)


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2nd campus newspaper adviser ousted in Kansas
Jennifer Schartz says she'll fight firing from community college; Kansas State's Ron Johnson says he's working to regain adviser post. 05.27.04

Full 7th Circuit upholds college against newspaper
Majority reverses earlier ruling that had found college press not subject to same limits as high school newspapers. 06.21.05

Mo. community college official accused of censorship
Board president orders student newspaper not to publish responses to questionnaires sent to six finalists to become president of Springfield school. 04.14.06

N.J. college draws censure, lawsuit over newspaper adviser's removal
Student editors call Ocean County College's decision an act of retaliation designed to institute administration control over Viking News' content. 05.22.06

Calif. expands freedoms for college press
By Melanie Bengtson New law will give student publications at public universities same free-press rights that professional media enjoy. 09.22.06

Thieves try to silence bad news by stealing campus newspapers
By Melanie Bengtson Since October, 11 universities have reported thefts of sometimes thousands of copies of student newspapers. 12.15.06

Wash. lawmakers consider bolstering student-press rights
'The right of free press is more important than the fear of inappropriate content,' says measure's sponsor. 01.22.07

U. of Texas regents remove prior review of campus newspaper
Now Daily Texan student staffers won't have to get adviser's approval before publication. 02.14.07

Wash. state student-press bill dies
By Melanie Bengtson Other student press-freedom bills await action in Oregon, Illinois, Michigan. 05.11.07

10th Circuit tosses suit challenging Kan. State adviser's ouster
Panel says case is now moot because former student editors have since graduated; First Amendment advocates say ruling could have detrimental effects on future cases. 08.08.07

New Ill. law boosts college press freedoms
By Lydia Hailman King Statute comes in response to 7th Circuit's Hosty ruling, which gave university officials leeway to censor campus media. 09.11.07

Student editor says principal was wrong to pull newspaper
Iowa educator says he took action because three verbal confrontations followed Little Hawk's publication of article on racial attitudes at high school. 10.26.07

Student journalists celebrate 20 years of L.A.Youth
By Melanie Bengtson U.S. Supreme Court decision spurred students, who were worried that state lawmakers might limit press rights, to create county-wide newspaper. 01.24.08

Calif. Senate panel OKs bill to protect journalism teachers
Measure would shield high school, college advisers from retaliation from administrators upset by students' stories or editorials. 04.10.08

Bill protecting Calif. journalism teachers signed into law
Statute to take effect Jan. 1 makes it illegal for high school or college administrators to dismiss, transfer or discipline school employees for protecting students' free speech. 10.02.08

Longtime student-media advocate still going strong
By Courtney Holliday Since 1974, Student Press Law Center has worked to ensure that high school, college journalists have legal resources necessary to fight censorship. 11.07.08

Lesbian teen fights to appear in tuxedo in yearbook
Mississippi ACLU demands that principal Ronald Greer publish Ceara Sturgis’ senior photo. 10.18.09

2 campus newspaper staffers charged with trespassing in dorm
Virginia SPJ chapter calls on James Madison University to drop charges against Breeze journalists who were interviewing students when housing officials told them to leave. 10.28.09

Coach 'proud' of players accused of campus newspaper theft
Texas A&M-Commerce officials say coach, players disciplined over incident; university president says school 'does not stand back idly when crimes like these are committed.' 03.04.10

How much will Hosty ruling affect campus expression?
By David L. Hudson Jr. Answer is complicated by 7th Circuit’s opinion being less than clear in discussing Hazelwood, qualified immunity, public forums. 06.30.05

Hosty ruling on college press leaves heads scratching
By Douglas Lee Full 7th Circuit's confusing approach to campus-newspaper case leaves uncertain legacy. 06.29.05

Is Ill. campus-press law too good to be true?
By Douglas Lee As hard as it might be to believe, there appears to be no catch, just a sincere desire to protect college media from overzealous campus administrators. 09.19.07

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