Court of Appeals says censorship of Kentucky State Univ. yearbook unconstitutional

A federal appellate court ruled Jan. 5 that Kentucky State University violated the First Amendment when officials confiscated almost all copies of the student yearbook in 1994.

In the case, Kincaid v. Gibson, a panel of 10 judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit rejected a lower court’s ruling that applied a high school-based censorship standard to college student media.

Instead, the court said the yearbook constituted a limited public forum, and as such, officials at the public university had violated the students First Amendment rights when they withheld the publication.

The majority decision rejected KSU officials’ argument that they were only regulating the style and form of the books rather than their content when they withheld them from distribution. Writing for the majority, Judge R. Guy Cole called this argument “simply not credible.”

“Confiscation ranks with forced government speech as among the purest forms of content alteration,” Cole said. “There is little if any difference between hiding from public view the words and pictures students use to portray their college experience, and forcing students to publish a state-sponsored script. In either case, the government alters student expression by obliterating it.”

The case began in 1995 when two Kentucky State students sued the university. Capri Coffer, who edited the yearbook, and Charles Kincaid, who had paid a mandatory student activity fee entitling him to a yearbook, argued that administrators violated their First Amendment rights when they confiscated the publications. School officials said they objected to the color of the book’s cover (purple), the title, “Destinations Unknown,” the inclusion of a current events section and a lack of captions for many of the photos.

Kentucky State University spokeswoman Jacqueline Bingham said the university has not yet decided whether to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, although she said it was “certainly an option.” She declined to make a statement about the ruling.

Bruce Orwin, the attorney for the students, said the decision was good for college student journalists.

“I think they can breathe a little easier now,” he said.

SPLC View: This case is obviously a big relief to the country