Court ruling threatens college media with high school censorship

Arlington, Va. — The Student Press Law Center issued an alarm to college student journalists, press groups and free expression advocates following a Nov. 14 ruling by a Kentucky federal court that threatens to strip the college media of much of its First Amendment protection.

The decision, Kincaid v. Gibson, Civ. No. 95-98 (E.D. Ky. Nov. 14, 1997), comes almost a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier drastically cut back on the First Amendment protection afforded most high school student media. Hazelwood allowed high school administrators to censor articles in school-sponsored student publications that administrators decided were “ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced…,” or “inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order.”

In his ruling dismissing the claims of students who sued Kentucky State University after it removed the newspaper adviser and confiscated yearbooks because of the publications’ content, federal district court Judge Joseph M. Hood said that the college press was subject to the same restrictions as the high school media.

The Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood specifically refused to apply the ruling to college student expression.

For three decades, student journalists at public colleges and universities have enjoyed legal protections similar to those afforded the commercial news media. Courts have said college administrators are allowed to censor student media only when they can demonstrate that some significant and imminent physical disruption of the campus will result from the publication’s content.

According to SPLC executive director Mark Goodman, this case may be the one many have both feared and anticipated since 1988.

“The college media could be fighting for its life with this case,” Goodman said. “As we’ve seen at high schools across the nation, when government officials can censor an article they don’t like simply by saying that it’s ‘poorly written’ — you’ve made a joke of the First Amendment. No credible student journalism program can operate under such constraints. The future of journalism education is very much at stake here.”

Judge Hood said that officials at Kentucky State University did not violate the First Amendment when they confiscated and held the 1992-94 issue of The Thorobred, KSU’s student yearbook, because, among other things, the yearbook editors decided to use purple instead of the school’s colors of yellow and green on the book’s cover.

School officials also justified their censorship by claiming that the yearbook covered current events instead of focusing exclusively on school activities and failed to identify all students in photo captions. They never claimed that the yearbook contained libel, obscenity, disruptive or other legally unprotected speech. To this day, administrators have never allowed the yearbook to be distributed.

The judge also rejected the students’ claim of First Amendment infringement based on the school’s temporary removal of the student newspaper adviser, who refused to give in to the administration’s attempt to censor the newspaper, The Thorobred News, as well.

The students have said they will appeal the ruling. The Student Press Law Center is soliciting support from media and civil rights groups around the nation for the students’ cause.

For more information contact:

Mark Goodman, Executive Director, Student Press Law Center(703) 807-1904

Bruce Orwin, attorney for plaintiff students(606) 678-4386

The Student Press Law Center, founded in 1974, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that provides free legal assistance and information to student journalists around the country.

The full text of Kincaid v. Gibson is available at: