Censorship 1980s Style: ‘WSJ’ Ed Board Member Recalls His Fight for Free Expression

May 29, 2013

From time to time, stories of campus censorship from before FIRE’s founding come across our desks and we all breathe a collective sigh, wishing we had been around to lend the wronged student, student group, or faculty member a hand. One such story caught our attention when Wall Street Journal editorial board member James Taranto wrote last Friday about his experience with censorship in the late 1980s when he was an editor at California State University, Northridge’s (CSUN’s) student newspaper, the Daily Sundial. 

In the spring 1987 semester, Taranto drew the ire of faculty publisher Cynthia Rawitch after he drove to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) to cover a campus controversy surrounding the publication of a cartoon critical of affirmative action. Taranto’s 1,200-word op-ed about the controversy filled the Sundial‘s opinion page and ran with a copy of the cartoon. Four days after the cartoon ran, Rawitch called Taranto and his fellow editors into a conference room, dressed them down for not consulting her prior to publishing the cartoon (despite the questionability of whether they were required to do so), suggested they "weren’t that bright," and suspended them for two weeks without pay.

What follows in the remainder of Taranto’s 7,200-word op-ed is a detailed description of how he fought back against his suspension. First, he tried to use the press to shame the university into recognizing his First Amendment rights and reversing his suspension. Then he tried to work through the university’s grievance system by writing a letter. Ultimately, when those two options failed to reverse his suspension, he filed a lawsuit.  

What caught FIRE’s attention about this description was how strikingly similar (although not identical) Taranto’s approach in 1987 was to FIRE’s efforts to vindicate student and faculty rights today. If there is one thing to be drawn from this observation it is probably that the Taranto/FIRE formula is tried and tested, and an effective strategy for standing up for one’s rights on campus—an approach that more students and faculty should use when combating censorship. 

Another interesting storyline in Taranto’s piece is his discussion of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which was handed down during Taranto’s legal fight with Rawitch. As many Torch readers are likely aware, Hazelwood was the 1988 decision that held that public high school newspapers are not simply forums for student expression, but also bear the school’s imprimatur and serve as laboratories for pedagogical purposes, and thus can be subject to administrative censorship.  

Despite the fact that Hazelwood was a high school decision, Rawitch and her legal team did not hesitate to seize on it in an effort to justify her punishment of Taranto and his fellow editors. 

Ultimately, however, the university backed down and settlement conditions were proposed. The terms that were agreed upon included, at Taranto’s behest, "an unambiguous declaration that the Sundial was a public forum." The language was an effort to forestall any future Hazelwood argument on behalf of the university to justify its censorship. The declaration read: 

The Daily Sundial has the responsibility of serving the university community within the guidelines established by the Department of Journalism. The function of the Sundial is to serve as a teaching tool. The Department also recognizes that the Sundial serves as a public forum. Students working on the Sundial are fully protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution from censorship by the faculty, school administration and state officials. The paper is not the personal organ of anyone.

As Taranto writes, the statement "tastes great and is less filling" and recognizes the importance of editorial autonomy in reporting and commenting on the news.

To read Taranto’s full piece, which is a tour de force recollection of one student’s successful fight against censorship in the days without FIRE, visit WSJ.com.