College newspapers fight for rights

September 22, 2005

By Erin France at The Daily Tar Heel

The U.S. Supreme Court received a petition Tuesday to review a case from the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that could affect free press policies on college campuses nationwide.

The 7th circuit overturned a lower court decision this summer that ruled in favor of Margaret Hosty, who sued Patricia Carter, then dean of student affairs and services at Governors State University in Illinois, for censoring the school newspaper.

The move was criticized by several First Amendment watch groups.

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the case has a 50 percent chance of reaching the Supreme Court because of the confusion the appeals court ruling caused in the lower courts.

“That directly enhances the chance that the Supreme Court will hear the case and overrule it,” he said. “The justices will recognize this case as important.”

Goodman said he is hopeful that the court will hear the case because it is in direct conflict with its ruling in Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia.

He said that in the case, UVa. had attempted to restrict access of student funding for student publications that contained political or religious matter but that the Supreme Court upheld students’ First Amendment rights.

Goodman said he expects similar cases concerning free speech in colleges to arise, but not anytime soon.

Ruth Walden, associate dean of graduate studies in the UNC School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said she doubts the Supreme Court will review the Hosty case.

“The court agrees to hear typically about 1 percent of the cases brought to them,” she said. “That’s a real crapshoot.”

Walden also said the discussion by First Amendment groups has been misdirected, noting that the appeals court ruled that the school administrator could not be held personally responsible for the newspaper’s censorship.

“The dean could not be held liable for the actions he took because it was not unreasonable for him to think he was protected,” Walden said.

But in presenting its opinion, she said the court mentioned the case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which gave high school officials the ability to reasonably censor school-sponsored student publications.

The decision was ruled constitutional by the Supreme Court because the high school publication was not a public forum, she said.

“The Hazelwood decision was very much a function of the high school environment and should not be applied to college students,” Walden said.

A statement released by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education said the court’s opinion should not have mentioned Hazelwood. It said the college newspaper in question clearly fell under the guidelines of a public forum because of its history and policy of student management.

The Student Press Law Center asked all the schools in the 7th circuit to formally designate their school’s newspapers as public forums uncensored by administrators, he said.

Illinois State University is the first one to do so, Goodman said.

“If they’re not going to put themselves on record, it’s going to look bad.”

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Schools: University of Virginia Governors State University University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Cases: Governors State University: Censorship of Student Newspaper