‘CNM Chronicle’ Back on Newsstands After ‘Sex Issue’ Censorship

By March 28, 2013

Central New Mexico Community College
Central New Mexico Community College Campus - Wikipedia

As FIRE reported yesterday, Central New Mexico Community College (CNM) has reinstated its student newspaper, The CNM Chronicle, after halting operations and removing the paper’s "Sex Issue" from newsstands. According to Chronicle editor-in-chief Jyllian Roach, school administrators went so far as "pulling papers … out of peoples’ hands." Readers and free speech advocates responded quickly to the Chronicle‘s tweets and Facebook posts with support for the paper and incredulity at CNM’s actions. In a show of solidarity with the Chronicle, the University of New Mexico’s Daily Lobo pledged not to publish printed issues of its own publication until the Chronicle could do the same. FIRE also joined the conversation with a letter to CNM President Katharine Winograd explaining the legal issues surrounding this act of censorship.

The March 26 issue of the Chronicle covered a range of topics, from sexual orientation and sexual identity, to sex toys and safe practices for bondage and sadomasochism, and even a three-quarter-page discussion of abstinence. The CNM administration responded by suspending the paper’s operations, stating that "the content was offensive and not appropriate for the educational mission of CNM." CNM also noted its plan to "re-evaluate how students can be trained, educated, and supervised" in their production of the newspaper, despite the award-winning Chronicle having already received national acclaim.

Implicitly recognizing that these reasons for pulling the paper were not legitimate, President Winograd offered a different explanation just hours later at an emergency Publication Board meeting: "[A] high school student was included in this issue and we needed to check on the legal ramifications of information on a minor in a publication of the college." But, as Roach pointed out to the Student Press Law Center, Winograd could have easily confirmed with her that the minor’s parents had already consented to their child’s inclusion in the paper.

Common sense suggests that this was not a problem of newspaper quality or staff training or the logistics of quoting a minor, but rather a simple case of CNM censoring speech on a topic with which the administration was uncomfortable. Campus conversations about sex are commonplace, and although not all sexuality-themed events go off without a hitch, the law is clear that public colleges such as CNM may not censor speech simply because they deem it "offensive" or because it discusses "inappropriate" subjects.

The U.S. Supreme Court has long held that the First Amendment right to free speech unequivocally applies at public colleges and universities. The Court stated in Healy v. James (1972) that there is "no room for the view that, because of the acknowledged need for order, First Amendment protections should apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large. Quite to the contrary, the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools."

The fact that the Chronicle is funded in part through federal work-study programs and student activity fees does nothing to change its protections under the First Amendment, as FIRE’s letter made clear: 

[T]he college’s claim that its indirect, administrative role in funding the paper’s operations (though distribution of subsidized federal work-study funds) gives it the authority to police its content is plainly incorrect. In Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, 529 U.S. 217 (2000) and Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819 (1995), the Supreme Court held that when a public university decides to use student activity fees to fund a multiplicity of independent student groups, each student group retains its status as a private party expressing its personal viewpoint. Similarly, when an institution such as CNM distributes federal work-study funds to a student newspaper, it does not retain any control over the paper’s message. Unlike an "official" university publication, student newspapers like the Chronicle are independent organizations whose speech is fully protected by the First Amendment. Accordingly, CNM cannot censor or punish such publications on the basis of content any more than the government can censor The New York Times.

While a survey of students’ favorite sex positions may not strike the CNM administration as a vital part of the healthy discourse that is meant to thrive at universities, the First Amendment protects possibly gratuitous language just as fiercely as obviously profound expression. For example, in Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri (1973), the Supreme Court upheld the right of a college newspaper to publish the headline "Motherfucker Acquitted," declaring that "the mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’"

Unfortunately, the CNM administration acted in precisely this prohibited manner. Thankfully, the school has acquiesced to the requests of the Chronicle‘s many supporters, returned the paper to newsstands, and authorized the Chronicle to resume operations.

We sincerely hope, though, that the CNM administration understands that this is a step necessary not only to prevent a PR backlash, but also to protect open and frank discussion of all topics on university campuses. Independent college newspapers must have the freedom to explore all issues-perhaps especially those that are uncomfortable and controversial because of their personal import to so many students.