Federal appeals court updholds college press freedom, rejects Illinois’ attempt to impose high school censorship standard

In a major victory forAmerica’s college student press, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the SeventhCircuit rejected an attempt by the state of Illinois to impose a highschool-based censorship standard on college student media. The April 10 rulingalso made clear that public college and university officials cannot requirereview of content in student-edited publications before they are published.

The 3-0 decision follows a similar ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals forthe Sixth Circuit two years ago.

The case was brought by studentjournalists at Governors State University after a school administrator ordered apublishing company in 2000 to refrain from printing The Innovator studentnewspaper without first obtaining her approval of its content. TheInnovator has not published an issue since.

In its ruling, thethree-judge panel made clear that the constitutional rights of college studentjournalists cannot be limited by the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision inHazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which significantly restricted the First Amendmentrights of high school journalists. Under Hazelwood, school administratorscan censor many high school-sponsored student publications simply by showingthey have a reasonable educational purpose. It is a standard that provideslimited free-speech protection in practice.

The Seventh Circuit saidHazelwood is not “a good fit” for college students, who it said shouldcontinue to receive “broad First Amendment rights.”

“The differencesbetween a college and a high school are far greater than the obvious differencein curriculum and extracurricular activities,” Judge Terence T. Evans wrote forthe court. “The missions of each are distinct reflecting the unique needs ofstudents of differing ages and maturity levels.”

The court cited the manycases that have supported college students’ press rights over the last 30years.

“These courts have held that school administrators can only censorstudent media if they show that the speech in question is legally unprotected orif they can demonstrate that some significant and imminent physical disruptionof the campus will result from the publication’s content,” Judge Evanssaid.

“Treating these students like 15-year-old high school students andrestricting their First Amendment rights by an unwise extension ofHazelwood,” the court said, “would be an extreme step for us to take absentmore direction from the Supreme Court.”

The appeals court sent the caseback to the trial court to render a decision consistent with its ruling. However, last week the Illinois Attorney General asked the Seventh Circuit togrant its request for a rehearing and suggestions for an en banc reviewbefore the full panel of appellate court judges. A ruling on that request willlikely take a couple of months.

SPLC VIEW: This is a huge win. The courtwas unambiguous in its finding that the First Amendment provides substantialfree speech protection to public college student media and that, unless theSupreme Court explicitly decides otherwise, Hazelwood is inappropriate.We hope that this ruling will dissuade – once and for all – college officialswho are inclined to censor from engaging in that unconstitutionalbehavior.

While the decision specifically addresses college press andspeech rights in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, the three states that thecourt oversees, it should have an impact nationwide.

At this point, thecase screams for a settlement. Unfortunately – and inexplicably – the IllinoisAttorney General continues to vigorously pursue the case, spending thousands oftaxpayer dollars in an effort to drastically alter the climate of freeexpression that has traditionally existed on America’s collegecampuses.

We can only hope that public attention – and pressure – willpersuade Illinois state officials to rethink what is, both legally andotherwise, its indefensible, misguided and dangerous position.

Finally,all of us in the college student media community owe Richard Goehler and hisfirm, Frost Brown Todd of Cincinnati, who argued the case without pay, our deepgratitude. In an unusual expression of praise, the appeals court commended the”superb amicus brief” filed by Goehler on behalf of a group of 25 FirstAmendment and media organizations led by the Student Press LawCenter.