‘Atlantic’ Column Makes Passionate Pitch for Strengthening College Journalists’ Free Speech Rights

By March 4, 2013

Woman with camera.

In a joint column for The Atlantic, media lawyer Jonathan Peters and Student Press Law Center (SPLC) Executive Director Frank LoMonte make the observation that, with all the changes in the media landscape (technological and economic, both for better and for worse), the role of college journalists is becoming more important than ever. That makes it of particular importance that First Amendment rights for student journalists are protected on America’s campuses. 

Unfortunately, they write, despite college journalists’ growing role in the wider journalism community, their rights are at particular risk. Among them is the shadow cast by the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision. Though decided in the context of a school-sponsored high school newspaper’s speech, the Hazelwood Court’s reasoning is increasingly worming its way into decisions affecting the rights of college students. As Peters and LoMonte write:

The legal standard at the heart of that case is that "educators" may regulate school-sponsored speech "so long as their actions are reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns." That applies to all student news media that are not independent from a school. Although the Hazelwood case involved and focused on the speech of high school students, recently it has been applied to the speech of college and graduate students.

Four federal courts of appeals, covering 16 states, have extended Hazelwood to the college setting, and only one has rejected such an extension. In the case Ward v. Polite, decided in January 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit held that Hazelwood applied to the claims of an Eastern Michigan University graduate student who said the university kicked her out of a degree program for school counselors because she expressed religious opposition to homosexuality. (The facts of the case were unrelated to journalism, but the opinion included a general analysis of the First Amendment rights of college students. It concluded that Hazelwood is suitable for the college level–and nothing in the opinion excluded student journalists.)

Indeed, Hazelwood remains such a potent threat that the SPLC has undertaken a much-needed "Cure Hazelwood" campaign in an effort to rid campuses of its influence. FIRE’s Will Creeley discussed the Sixth Circuit’s reliance on Hazelwood in the college context in Ward at length here on The Torch last year. 

Be sure to read Peters’ and LoMonte’s column in full at The Atlantic, where they outline more of the challenges facing college journalists—and offer their solutions.