School threatens prior review after condom story

UTAH ‘ Student journalists at Southern Utah University are resting a little easier, as it appears administrators are backing off their claims that they have a legal right to control the student newspaper’s content.

In September, the University Journal criticized the limited availability of condoms on campus, stirring administrators to threaten prior review of the newspaper. Now, a Society of Professional Journalists task force says a mutually agreeable compromise between the school and the newspaper can be reached that will uphold the students’ free-speech rights.

In a Sept. 5 story headlined ‘Playing hard to get,’ the newspaper reported on the university’s policy of making condoms only available through the campus wellness center. The story included a photo illustration of a banana with a condom stretched over it. An accompanying staff editorial suggested that administrators might be trying to push a conservative pro-abstinence agenda on students.

University President Steven Bennion and Dane Leavitt, a board of trustees member, expressed their disapproval over the newspaper’s treatment of the issue.

Bennion has told students that administrators have ‘a responsibility to monitor the paper,’ because it represents the university as a whole. He said the article could scare away potential university donors.

The matter led Bennion to resurrect an inactive newspaper steering committee. The University Journal Steering Council, consisting of students, faculty and administrators, has met to rewrite bylaws to establish whether control over Journal content rests with students or administrators.

Leavitt has claimed the university has authority based on the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood decision, which limited the First Amendment rights of high school students. The courts, however, have consistently rejected efforts to apply Hazelwood to college-level cases.

Once finished, the revised bylaws will be subject to approval by the faculty senate, university deans, the president and the board of trustees, said Tasha Williams, editor of the Journal.

‘I think the bylaws are being written in our favor at this point,’ Williams said. ‘It will be interesting to see if it gets passed through to the president.’

Society of Professional Journalists sent a task force to the school to issue a recommendation. They suggested the university implement a student publications advisory board comprising of faculty, administrators, journalists and students. The board would oversee the Journal but could not review content prior to publication.

Jay Evenson, editorial page editor at Deseret News and a member of the task force, said he is optimistic a solution can be met. He said he does not believe Bennion gave the impression in interviews with SPJ that he wants prior review of the Journal.