“[Hosty]’s come up from time to time [in our newsroom],” said Aaron Seidlitz, editor in chief of Eastern Illinois University’s student newspaper, the Daily Eastern News. “Most of the time it’s with the staff and a few professors as well. I think that every collegiate newspaper should just have conversations with their advisers just to have a better understanding of the situation and where they stand.”
The Court’s ruling lets stand a June 2005 decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that could provide university administrators with authority to censor school-sponsored speech by public college students and faculty, including speech in some student newspapers, at schools in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.
The 7th Circuit’s decision is only binding in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin and is in direct conflict with decisions of other state and federal courts around the country.
At Northern Illinois University, student newspaper editor Derek Wright said that administrators at the university have not had a history of restricting free speech, but he still fears the possibility.
“It’s scary, especially for us, because last week we published the Muhammad cartoons,” he said. “If the schools are now going to be allowed to step in and censor something like that, it could prevent future decisions on hot button issues.”
Although he spoke of the possibility, Wright said that he is not particularly worried about the Northern Star being censored immediately because of Hosty. The paper is funded entirely by advertising, but it maintains some ties with the university, he said. Papers that are completely independent from the university are not affected by the Hosty decision because they do not fall under school-sponsored speech. But using school office space, for example, could be enough to constitute school sponsorship.
Nonetheless, Wright described the university president and the paper’s advisers as being “very supportive of the free press,” he said.
Wright is not letting the fact that the environment at Northern Illinois University has been press friendly in recent years prevent him from taking measures to ensure that freedom, he said. The paper is currently looking into being recognized as a public forum by university administrators.
The Student Press Law Center is encouraging students in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin to call upon their schools to pledge their commitment to free speech by explicitly designating their student media as “public forums” where student editors have the right to make editorial decisions free from administrative interference. Since the appeals court decision in June, a small number of schools in the 7th Circuit have done so, but it is expected that others will follow as student and faculty groups demand such action. (See http://www.splc.org/publicforumcolleges for details.)
“This ruling changes the playing field. People in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin who care about free expression need to take steps today to defend a free student press if they want to ensure a free press will be around tomorrow,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of the SPLC.
The Northern Star is not the only paper attempting to be declared a public forum. Ball State University’s student newspaper, Ball State Daily News, is also looking into being declared a public forum, said Editor in Chief Dave Studinski.
“I definitely feel like it’s something that needs to be done,” he said. “Since we’ve had a history of freedom of the press, we shouldn’t have a problem” being declared a public forum.
Studinski said he is not only thinking of the present but also toward the future.
“It’s the future generations that have to worry about this,” Studinski said. “Right now there aren’t any problems with this administration, but what happens if the administration changes, when the president leaves?”
The appeals court ruled that the Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which has been used to restrict the First Amendment rights of elementary and high school students and teachers, could apply to colleges and universities as well. The appeals court decision is in stark contrast to over three decades of law that have protected college student journalists’ free speech rights from censorship by school officials unhappy with what they publish.
Organizations that filed briefs supporting the students in the Hosty case said they are upset with the Supreme Court’s decision, but that they will continue to fight for students’ rights.
“The Supreme Court made the wrong decision flat out,” said Greg Lukianoff, interim president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a non-profit organization dedicated to defending individual rights at colleges and universities. “This decision has badly muddied the legal landscape when it comes to freedom of speech. I’ve previously called this decision a disaster, and I stand by that.”