Quinnipiac President Thinks Free Speech Violation Not a First Amendment Problem

By December 18, 2008

The Quad News reports that at a question and answer session with the Student Government Association (SGA), Quinnipiac University (QU) President John Lahey denied that his censorship of The Chronicle, the QU student newspaper, violated the First Amendment. Lahey’s right. Technically, it’s not a First Amendment problem, since QU is a private school, but it was definitely a major free speech problem and an embarrassment to the institution. Let’s reexamine that case briefly.

At a previous student government meeting, Lahey complained that Quinnipiac’s student media were breaking stories on their website, which then were picked up by outside media sources. (This is a process known at most news organizations as "doing your job.") Lahey saw this as a problem because it put campus issues up for discussion in an arena where he has "absolutely no control." He didn’t like that he had to field questions from professional journalists over student articles posted online that he hadn’t yet read.

Lahey’s solution was to require The Chronicle to post articles to the website only after the print edition came out so that he wouldn’t be surprised with press callsthe reverse of what is expected by readers of every other newspaper in the Internet age. He wanted to be able to read the news "before the external world hears about it," and presumably couldn’t be bothered to go online to read it. Unsurprisingly, the student journalists of The Chronicle found that this prior restraint inhibited the newspaper’s ability to break developing stories and hindered the publishing process of a free press.

Then Lahey’s administration asserted control over the editorial selection process for the paper, causing The Chronicle‘s editors to leave en masse and form The Quad News, an online, independent, off-campus news entity. In response QU’s administration threatened the recognition status of the QU chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists if it interacted with or endorsed The Quad News and forbade university staff from speaking with the off-campus paper. (It seems that these issues have finally been resolved.) The New York Times severely criticized QU’s actions, as did a number of student newspapers, and Greg covered the case on The Huffington Post, all to no avail.

According to the report in The Quad News, "Lahey stated that it was not a violation of First Amendment rights with The Chronicle, but rather a reaction to the breaking of policy regarding the posting of stories. He said that banning JuicyCampus.com would be a breaking of First Amendment rights, though."

Not a First Amendment violation? Prior restraint has been considered a clear violation of the right of a free press for hundreds of years (see, for instance, John Milton’s "Areopagitica"), and certainly since the First Amendment was ratified. So while QU’s private status saves this appalling behavior from also being a violation of the First Amendment, it certainly violates American traditions of liberty and is shameful nonetheless. To excuse his administration’s actions as not about freedom of speech, and then to argue against banning JuicyCampus.com (a site for anonymous postings primarily by college students) as a matter of free speech, shows a curious kind of reasoning that seems better suited to Alice in Wonderland.

Lahey obviously remains entirely unrepentant. Students’ speech rights at QU are not safe if Lahey believes that all it takes to curtail those rights is the institution of a new restrictive policy. Those expecting universities to place principle over control or even just convenience are more likely than not to be disappointed in today’s academic climate.

Schools: Quinnipiac University