For free student press, move off campus

March 18, 2006

By Jeffrey McCall at The Indianapolis Star

The U.S. Supreme Court has sent a message to college student journalists: If you want full press rights, then disassociate yourselves from any financial or logistical connection to the university where you operate.

In late February, the Supreme Court gave a setback to the college press. Last summer, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago issued a ruling that expanded college administration power over student newspapers. The Supreme Court refused to hear that case on appeal.

The 7th Circuit’s Hosty ruling evolved from a decision by the administration of Governors State University in Illinois to prohibit publication of the student newspaper unless it had been reviewed by a school official. As is usually the case in school press disputes, the student journalists at GSU had written articles critical of the administration. Reporter Margaret Hosty and two other students sued the university, claiming their free press rights had been violated. The 7th Circuit ruled in favor of the administration, citing the 1988 Supreme Court Hazelwood ruling. That ruling gave high school administrators wide latitude to control the content of school newspapers based on educational reasons and financial support.

College press supporters had previously ignored Hazelwood, figuring that college students, as adults, would not come under the Hazelwood umbrella. The 7th Circuit turned that assumption on its head, stating, “Hazelwood provides our starting point.”

The implications of this decision could go beyond campus media to the free expression rights of any campus organization that accepts university subsidies. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) fears the Hosty decision will embolden university administrators to increase regulation of the many religious, political and social campus groups that rely on funds collected as student fees.

Journalism organizations, as expected, are aghast at the Supreme Court’s failure to get involved in the Hosty case. In a statement, Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said he had hoped “the Supreme Court would step in to reaffirm that important principle . . . that a university is a ‘marketplace of ideas.’ ” Society of Professional Journalists President David Carlson said, “Allowing college administrators to decide the content of college newspapers is not far different from allowing the White House to determine the content of The Washington Post.”

The proponents of college newspapers provide emotional support for student free expression, but they are arguing the wrong points. They are arguing for free speech while the court is deciding the case based on structural considerations. The court is simply pointing out that student newspapers that are linked structurally to the administration, in this case by subsidy, cannot expect to receive the full free expression protection of independent voices.

Arguing philosophically about the marketplace of ideas doesn’t help when the decision is based on logistics.

SPLC and SPJ are reacting to the decision by asking universities to declare their student media to be “public forums.” This distinction, the court says, would allow student reporters complete free expression protection. But why would any sensible university administrator be willing to declare such and give away any measure of student media control while still providing financial subsidies? With such a model in place, the administration would be asked next to give away control of other campus groups that receive funding.

University administrations are powerful entities that affect the lives of students, employees and the communities in which they are located. Administrations must be scrutinized, and on occasion, criticized by the press. But the recent court actions (or inaction, in the case of the Supreme Court) suggest the need for a new avenue to conduct this scrutiny.

True press freedom can occur only when the student media organizations are financially and structurally separated from the university. Professional journalists can help student reporters by guiding them through the steps needed to make them fully independent voices. Reject university funding and subsidies. Locate the newspaper offices off of university property. Remove university credit from student press activities. Allow no formal linkage of university faculty to serve as advisers. In short, create an environment in which we have journalists who happen to be students, rather than having “student journalists.”

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Schools: Governors State University Cases: Governors State University: Censorship of Student Newspaper