Ruling could test MSC free press

March 6, 2006

The Daily Sentinel

A recent move by the U.S. Supreme Court could dampen press freedoms at colleges across the country, especially for newspapers, such as The Criterion at Mesa State College, that receive college funding.

Late last month the Supreme Court decided not to consider a case involving the administration of an Illinois public university that demanded to review the student newspaper before its publication.

The appeals court decision, which affirmed the college’s right of prior review, significantly expanded a landmark 1988 case, where the Supreme Court distinguished between the First Amendment rights of elementary and high school students and the rights of college students.

Although the Seventh Circuit decision only set a binding precedent for three Midwestern states, other courts — including those in Colorado — could look to it as an example.

First Amendment advocates have said the case, Hosty v. Carter, could undermine collegiate press freedom and make young journalists less likely to broach topics abrasive to their schools.

Erik Lincoln, editor of The Criterion, Mesa State’s weekly campus newspaper, said The Criterion has a difficult balancing act on campus because it has to serve as an independent observer of an institution that also funds it.

The Criterion receives roughly 55 percent of its budget from student fees, which are allocated by student government.

Although Lincoln said Mesa State has never attempted to censor The Criterion during his tenure as editor, he said the student government and college administration have not hesitated to let him know when they were disappointed with the newspaper’s content or coverage.

Lincoln cited a student government meeting from November when student government Vice President Maria Goergen said she gained the impression after speaking with Mesa State President Tim Foster that “he’s not exactly excited with what they are doing.” She said the administration was attempting to reach out to the newspaper’s adviser, professor Bill Haggerty, to “see what they can do.”

But Haggerty said this week that he only intervenes with the newspaper at the request of its staff or if he sees libelous material in its pages.

“There have been certain stories they might not necessarily like, or the angles the students take,” Haggerty said, “but there has never been any issue of prior restraint.”

Haggerty said his role is not that of the administration’s arm in the newsroom, but rather to help hone college journalists’ skills and prepare them for the real world.

“It’s their newspaper. It’s a student newspaper,” he said. “I don’t want to have any issues with prior restraint, but I will not hesitate to tell them if they’re being libelous.”

First Amendment advocates say the Hosty decision gives college administrators more leeway in forcing the hand of student newspapers that receive a cut of student fees.

Greg Lukianoff, interim president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in Philadelphia, said the Hosty decision could also create problems for overly invasive college administrators. Because of their greater involvement, he said, libel and defamation cases that would normally be directed at the newspaper alone could be redirected toward college administrations.

“If administrators take over greater editorial control, they’re more likely to be held liable for the newspapers’ mistakes,” Lukianoff said.

The worst part about this decision, he said, was how the court essentially regarded college students as the equals of elementary and high school students.

“Unfortunately, the inescapable message of this decision is that college students, nearly all of them adults, should have the same level of press freedom as high school freshmen in a journalism class,” Lukianoff said.

Steven Zansberg, a partner and media lawyer at Faegre & Benson in Denver, said even though the Seventh Circuit decision is not binding on Colorado, which lies in the 10th Circuit, it could be “persuasive” to other judges.

“Yes, courts look to other decisions from other courts of appeals outside their jurisdiction,” Zansberg said. “Although they’re not binding, they’re persuasive.”

Even though Zansberg said he was hopeful that attorneys in Colorado and the 10th Circuit could convince a judge to not restrict student press freedoms, “it remains to be seen what judges here will do.”

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