Court says thesis must follow guidelines

CALIFORNIA ‘ A three-judge federal appellate court panel has ruled that colleges can limit student speech in academic work after a graduate student attempted to criticize administrators in his master’s thesis.

Christopher Brown sued the University of California at Santa Barbara claiming that his First Amendment rights were violated when university officials withheld his master’s degree. He had added a ‘disacknowledgments’ section to his thesis that had criticized administrators and government officials without his thesis board’s approval. A district court held that Brown’s First Amendment rights were not violated and he appealed.

In its 2-1 decision in August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the district court’s ruling that stated a college can expect students to follow its guidelines for written work. But the court did not agree on what standard would limit academic-related student speech.

Writing for the court, Judge Susan Graber argued that the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier could be applied to college free-speech cases concerning curriculum. In Hazelwood, the Court held that high school officials did not violate the rights of students when prohibiting the publication of newspaper stories that were deemed objectionable.

Although the Supreme Court has not yet addressed the application of Hazelwood at the collegiate level, Graber argued that the need for mandating curriculum in a classroom does not lessen as a student ages.

Judge Warren Ferguson joined Graber in a concurring opinion but did not apply Hazelwood. He said Brown’s act of deception by adding the ‘disacknowledgments’ section without approval was not protected under the First Amendment.

The third judge on the panel, Stephen Reinhardt, vehemently disagreed with Graber’s opinion and the application of Hazelwood.

Reinhardt wrote in his dissenting opinion that ‘regulation of the speech rights of high school youths [does] not apply in the adult world of college and graduate students, an arena in which academic freedom and vigorous debate are supposed to flourish.’

Brown is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

Brown v. Li, 308 F. 3d 939 (9th Cir. 2002).