PRESS RELEASE: College journalism groups urge Court to protect political speech in student newspapers

Arlington, Va. — Groups representing America’s collegestudent media asked the U.S. Supreme Court this week to overturna lower court ruling that they warned “could threaten thevery existence of student media on hundreds of public collegecampuses nationwide.”

At issue is a decision handed down late last year by a federalappellate court in Chicago finding that students at the Universityof Wisconsin had the right to refuse to pay student activity feesto the school that were used to support “political or ideological”student groups whose views were at odds with their own. Whilethe students challenging the school’s policy said they were nottargeting mainstream student newspapers, the effect of the court’sruling on student media could be devastating.

The student media groups warned that the appellate court decisiongave no clear indication of how a school could distinguish betweenpublications that were impermissibly “political and ideological”and those that were not. Most college student newspapers includeeditorials or opinion columns that offer political or ideologicalviewpoints; the lower court failed to establish guidelines fordetermining how many of such editorials or columns could be publishedbefore a student newspaper could have its funding withdrawn.

In a friend of the court brief filed before the U.S. Supreme Courtby the Student Press Law Center,the AssociatedCollegiate Press and CollegeMedia Advisers, Inc., the groups warned that the appellatecourt’s decision — if not overturned — could seriously underminecampus free expression, which the Supreme Court has said in previousdecisions should be afforded the highest degree of First Amendmentprotection. The brief emphasized the long-recognized value ofvital campus student media.

“Reporting and commenting on issues and candidates for politicaloffice is one of the most important functions of any newspaper,”said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press LawCenter. “It is disturbing to think that a college newspaperwould have to give up that right in order to continue publishing.”

Using statistics gathered from recent national surveys of thestudent media, the groups warned of the appellate court decision’spotential impact on America’s college press.

“Virtually all student news media provide some sort of politicalcommentary or opinion….” [Additionally, a] significantpercentage of public college newspapers and broadcast stationsreceive student activity fee funding, and many could not publishwithout it.”

The brief was written by attorneys at Dorsey& Whitney LLP, a Minneapolis-based law firm.

The Court is expected to hear oral arguments in the case thisfall.

Case: University of Wisconsin v. Southworth, No. 98-1189

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A copyof the brief is available on the Student Press Law Center’sWeb site at: more information:Mark Goodman, Executive Director, Student Press Law Center(703) 807-1904director@splc.orgLucy Dalglish, Esq., Dorsey & Whitney LLPCounsel for Amici Curiae(612) 340-2600