SPLC praises appellate court decision that upholds college press rights

SPLC PRESS RELEASEFor Immediate Release

ILLINOIS — In a significant victory for student press,the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit said today that publiccolleges and universities cannot ask to review content in student-editedpublications before they are published. In doing so, the court rejected an attemptby the state of Illinois to impose a high school-based censorship standard oncollege student media. Mark Goodman, executive director of the StudentPress Law Center, praised the ruling that he said commandedly reaffirms the last30 years of college censorship cases.”We hope that this ruling willdissuade — once and for all — college officials who areinclined to censor from engaging in that unconstitutional behavior,” Goodmansaid.This decision follows a similar ruling by the U.S. Court of Appealsfor the 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 FirstAmendment rights of many high school journalists. Under Hazelwood schooladministrators can censor high school-sponsored student publications simply by showingthey have a reasonable educational purpose. It is a standard that provides verylittle 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.”Specifically, the issuein front of the Seventh Circuit was whether Patricia Carter, the university’s deanof student affairs, could claim qualified immunity, therefore protecting herfrom being sued on the grounds that she violated the students’ First Amendmentrights when she requested to review and approve the Innovator prior toprinting. Qualified immunity protects government officials when their conduct does not violate clearly establishedstatutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would haveknown.Carter argued that the law was not clearly established for collegemedia partly because of Hazelwood. The court denied her claim and saidshe should have been aware of the many cases over the last 30 years thatsupport college students’ press rights. “These courts have held thatschool administrators can only censor student media if they show that the speechin question is legally unprotected or if they can demonstrate that somesignificant and imminent physical disruption of the campus will result from thepublication’s content,” Judge Evans said. In its ruling, the courtaffirmed the order of the district court denying Dean Carter’s request forqualified immunity and returned the case to that court for furtherproceedings.The court commended the “superb amicus brief” filedby attorney Richard Goehler on behalf of a group of 25 student and professional media organizations led by the Student Press Law Center. Among other things, the court citedresearch in the brief that “only 1 percent of those enrolled in Americancolleges or universities are under the age of 18, and 55 percent are 22 years ofage or older.””Treating these students like 15-year-old high schoolstudents and restricting their First Amendment rights by an unwise extension ofHazelwood,” the court said, “would be an extreme step for us to takeabsent more direction from the Supreme Court.”The decision specificallyaddresses college press and speech rights in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin,the three states that the court oversees, but it could have an impactnationwide.

Mark Goodman, executive directorStudent Press Law Center703-807-1904

A copy of the court’s decision is available from the Seventh Circuit’s Web site.

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