Hazelwood restrictions loom over colleges

KENTUCKY — If allowed to stand, a Nov. 14 decision by a Kentucky federal district court would mark the first time the Hazelwood standard has been used to justify the censorship of a college publication.

In his opinion, Judge Joseph M. Hood ruled that college yearbooks are not public forums and that university administrators have the right to exercise “reasonable” control over student publications.

The case, Kincaid v. Gibson, Civ. No. 95-98 (E.D. Ky., Nov. 14, 1997), arose after Charles Kincaid, a student, and Capri Coffer, the former student editor of the school yearbook, The Thorobred, sued Kentucky State University administrators for refusing to distribute the yearbook, attempting to control the student newspaper, The Thorobred News and removing the publication adviser.

The students claimed the university administration abridged their First Amendment right to free speech by withholding distribution of the yearbooks and interfering in the publication of the student newspaper.

The students claimed that Betty Gibson, vice president of student affairs, objected to content in the student newspaper that reflected negatively on the university. They claimed the publication adviser was temporarily removed from her position because she refused to censor the newspaper. They also said Gibson withheld the yearbooks because of content.

Kentucky State administrators claimed they refused to distribute the yearbook because it was of poor quality and did not properly represent the university. The yearbook should have been more focused on campus events and people, Gibson said. Gibson was also unhappy that the yearbook failed to highlight the school colors of yellow and green.

In granting the school’s motion to dismiss the case, the court cited Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case that significantly limited the First Amendment protection available to school-sponsored high school student publications.

In a footnote to the Hazelwood ruling, the court made clear that its decision addressed only the constitutional protection afforded high school students. It left open the question of whether similar restrictions would be appropriate for college student media.

“We need not now decide whether the same degree of deference [to censorship by school officials] is appropriate with respect to school sponsored expressive activities at the college and university level,” the Court said.

Since 1988, a handful of courts have had the opportunity to extend Hazelwood to the college level, but have refused to do so.

The court’s ruling in the Kentucky State case said that since the university is the publisher of the yearbook and because the publisher had not intended to open up the yearbook as a public forum, it could not be considered such.

Therefore, the court found that the administration’s confiscation of the yearbooks was a reasonable restriction of speech.

The decision also said that the students could not sue the university for violating their First Amendment rights concerning the newspaper because they failed to establish any “injury in fact.”

Mark Witherspoon, president of College Media Advisers, said this decision could be potentially devastating to the student press.

“College student media have a First Amendment right to be free of prior review and censorship,” Witherspoon said.

“If we don’t have good journalists, we don’t have a good democracy. If you are trying to train journalists for the future, this kind of decision hampers journalism educators from training good journalists and therefore endangers the future of America,” he said.

Bruce Orwin, attorney for the students, said the students will appeal the ruling.

Read the full text of Kincaid v. Gibson, Civ. No. 95-98 (E.D. Ky., Nov. 14, 1997)