Supreme Court neglects the right to free student press

March 8, 2006

Royal Purple Staff Opinion

The United States Supreme Court made a decision Feb. 24 that opened the door for the restriction of speech of college students nationwide.

In 1988, Hazelwood vs. Ferguson secured the right of educational institutions up to and through a high school level to censor student run publications based on content.

This decision was extended through the university level in June 2005 by the 7th Court of Appeals in Chicago. The district covers Wisconsin and Indiana as well, potentially subjecting a number of University of Wisconsin System publications to the same censorship.

In refusing recently to hear an appeal of the June 2005 ruling of Hosty v. Carter, the U.S. Supreme Court essentially extended the right to restrict student speech from high school to a secondary educational level.

Infringements such as this carve a growing hole in the American tradition of free speech, as the limits of government censorship extend beyond minors, to publications written and compiled by legal adults.

As a student-run-and-operated publication, the Royal Purple currently rests “an arm’s length” from the university; presumably out of the reach of the government censorship now allowed by the Supreme Court, but for how long?

For more than a decade, student speech has been confined by the rulings of the Hazelwood decision, but no further. This new ruling has been called by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, “the most harmful Court of Appeals decision regarding student freedom of speech in higher education to come down in a generation.”

Some feel this was simply a matter of the definition of a public forum.

“I just think it wasn’t significant enough for the Supreme Court to address in that way,” said Wilfred Tremblay, a professor of communications law at UW-Whitewater. “If they did the same thing to a public forum publication, that would be a significant action.”

Significant action or not, Tremblay acknowledged the lasting consequences of the Supreme Court’s inaction.

“I think it’s inevitable that some university will try to restrict a public forum in the next few years,” said Tremblay. “I’d like to see what happens there.”

Luckily UW-Whitewater Chancellor Martha Saunders will not likely be the one to test the theory.

“I have long been a supporter of the freedom of the student press, and it would take a lot to change my mind,” Saunders said.

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Schools: University of Wisconsin – Whitewater Governors State University Cases: Governors State University: Censorship of Student Newspaper