FIRE letter to Central New Mexico Community College

By March 27, 2013

March 27, 2013 

President Katharine Winograd
Central New Mexico Community College
Office of the President
525 Buena Vista Drive, SE
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87106 

URGENT 

Sent Via U.S. Mail and Electronic Mail (winograd@cnm.edu)

Dear President Winograd:

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) unites leaders in the fields of civil rights and civil liberties, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, academic freedom, due process, freedom of speech, and freedom of conscience on America’s college campuses. Our website, thefire.org, will give you a greater sense of our identity and activities. 

FIRE is gravely concerned by the profound threat to freedom of expression presented by Central New Mexico Community College’s (CNM’s) censorship of its student newspaper, The CNM Chronicle. Because of the content of the Chronicle‘s "Sex Issue," CNM has suspended the newspaper’s operations, openly admitting that its blatant censorship was motivated by its belief that the content was "offensive." This indefensible act is incompatible with CNM’s legal and moral obligations under the First Amendment. CNM must reinstate the Chronicle immediately.

This is our understanding of the facts; please inform us if you believe we are in error.

Reporters for the Chronicle are paid with federal work-study funds administered by CNM. Additionally, the paper raises revenue through advertising sales and receives funding allocated through mandatory student activity fees paid by students. Though CNM has an administrative role in managing the federal work-study funds paid to the paper’s staff, the Chronicle is recognized as an independent publication. (CNM’s Student Life website refers to the Chronicle as "independent," for example.)

This week, the Chronicle published a "Sex Issue," which includes frank discussions of sexuality and relationships, among other topics. Such issues are commonplace in college newspapers around the country. Yesterday, however, CNM officials reportedly physically removed copies of the newspaper from newsstands on campus and, according to some reports, confiscated them directly from students. 

CNM subsequently issued a statement defending its decision and announcing that it was "temporarily suspending" the Chronicle‘s operations "with hopes of [the paper] being back up and running by the summer term." CNM stated further:

CNM is going to re-evaluate how students can be trained, educated and supervised in operating a widely disseminated student publication.

Some issues were pulled off the racks late in the afternoon. CNM felt the content was offensive and not appropriate for the educational mission of CNM.

CNM funds the operations of the Chronicle, and as a publicly funded institution, CNM feels a responsibility to make sure public funds are being used to support the College’s educational mission. [Emphasis added.] 

Per its statement, CNM plans to reassign the Chronicle staff to other work-study assignments while the paper’s operations are suspended. 

CNM’s actions to censor The CNM Chronicle shock the conscience, violate the First Amendment, and dramatically chill free speech on the college’s campus.

As any reasonable public college president should well know, it has long been settled law that the First Amendment is fully binding on public colleges like CNM. See Widmar v. Vincent, 454 U.S. 263, 268-69 (1981) ("With respect to persons entitled to be there, our cases leave no doubt that the First Amendment rights of speech and association extend to the campuses of state universities."); Healy v. James, 408 U.S. 169, 180 (1972) (internal citation omitted) ("[T]he precedents of this Court leave 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 Supreme Court of the United States has unequivocally held that student speech in student publications may not be punished merely because some or even many may find it to be offensive or disrespectful. In upholding the First Amendment right of a college student newspaper to publish an article with the headline "Motherfucker Acquitted" in Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973), the Court held 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.’" By its own admission, CNM censored the publication and attempted to confiscate all printed copies of the publication because it found the paper’s content "offensive." Given the unequivocal protection of student speech enjoyed under the First Amendment on public college campuses, CNM’s censorship of the Chronicle is a brazen violation of the newspaper’s First Amendment rights. 

Further, the 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

Though CNM now states that the Chronicle‘s staffers lack sufficient journalism training, the college has had no issues with trumpeting the significant achievements of the Chronicle in the past. Indeed, on March 8, not even three weeks ago, CNM issued a statement calling attention to the Chronicle‘s showing at the Associated Collegiate Press National College Journalism Convention, where the paper took third place in the "Best in Show" category for two-year colleges.[1] That same statement further noted that "[t]he Chronicle placed ninth in the Associated Collegiate Press competition last year."

If the CNM administration wants a publication that will not print stories or issues that are in any way embarrassing to the institution, it is of course free to start its own newspaper, under its own editorial control, with its own agenda. It may not, however, violate the First Amendment rights enjoyed by the Chronicle.

FIRE asks that Central New Mexico Community College immediately renounce its blatant censorship of The CNM Chronicle and restore its operations immediately. We are committed to using all resources at our disposal to ensure a just resolution in this case. Please spare CNM the embarrassment of continuing this fight against the Bill of Rights, and send the message to your students that CNM respects their right to free speech, in accordance with its legal and moral obligations under the Constitution.

Given the urgency of correcting the rights violation at issue, we request a response to this letter by April 3, 2013. 

Sincerely, 

Robert Shibley
Senior Vice President

cc:
Phillip Bustos, Vice President for Student Services
Rudy Garcia, Dean of Students




[1] See http://www.cnm.edu/news/student-newspaper-takes-third-in-national-journalism-competition.