College Hazelwood case set for March 18 hearing

KENTUCKY – College journalists may want to keep their fingers crossed but they should probably not hold their breath.

After a long wait, the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals announced in late January that Kincaid v. Gibson, the much-anticipated censorship case involving Kentucky State University, will be heard by a three-judge panel in Cincinnati on March 18.

At that time, each side in the case will have at least 15 minutes to present their legal arguments to the judges. The actual make-up of the judicial panel – which many legal experts say could be crucial in this case – will not be determined until two weeks prior to the hearing.

The case arose, in part, after KSU officials confiscated all copies of the 1992-94 student yearbook. Among other things, school officials were upset that the yearbook editor failed to include captions under all photographs, that she covered national and international current events and that the yearbook cover’s color did not match the school’s official colors. The yearbooks remain locked away in a university storage room. The university also temporarily removed the adviser to the student newspaper from her position because of her refusal to censor the publication.

The yearbook’s student editor – joined by another KSU student – sued.

In November 1997, a federal district court judge upheld the censorship. In the first case of its kind involving college student media, the judge based his ruling on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood decision, a case which significantly limited the First Amendment rights of most high school students working on school-sponsored student publications.

In a footnote to the Hazelwood decision, the Supreme 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.

The KSU students filed their appeal with the Sixth Circuit early in 1998. Briefs on both sides of the case – including three separate friend-of-the-court briefs in support of the students – were filed with the court by September.

While many in the college media are anxious about the outcome, it will probably be a while before there are any new answers. Court officials say that it usually takes about six months after oral arguments before a final decision is issued.