The Student Press Law Center condemns the actions of officials at Kansas State University in removing a student newspaper adviser based on the content decisions made by student editors. The Center has grave concerns about the legal arguments KSU officials are making about free press protections. Those arguments are, quite simply, unprecedented, bizarre and offensive to the First Amendment.
The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Kansas State, acting on the recommendation of the school of journalism director, removed adviser Ron Johnson in May after a campus controversy over the newspaper’s coverage.
Correspondence from A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications Director Todd F. Simon and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Stephen E. White released as part of a lawsuit filed by Johnson and student editors contesting the school’s actions make clear that the newspaper’s content was a motivating factor in the decision to remove Johnson.
In fact, Simon appeared to base his decision in large part on a superficial “content analysis” he conducted of stories published in the Kansas State Collegian compared to stories published on the Web sites of several other college student newspapers. Simon concluded that the Collegian did not include sufficient “diversity” coverage in its pages.
Independent of the breathtaking methodological flaws in this supposed “research,” the analysis was based on a presumption that student editors in fact do not have the authority to make content decisions relating to diversity coverage that school officials disagree with. The fact that student editors may choose to cover diversity issues differently from school administrators does not give a public university the authority to remove their adviser as punishment.
The actions taken by Kansas State officials have had a direct and immediate chilling effect on students at the university and will continue to do so until those actions have been rescinded by the university administration or rejected by a court of law. No future editors will feel safe in covering controversial issues knowing that their choices could result in the removal of their adviser.
In their official “Response to Application for Preliminary Injunction,” Todd F. Simon, Director of the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications, and Stephen E. White, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, justified using the content of the student publication as a basis for taking punitive action against it in the following way:
[The content] analysis goes to the general quality of the newspaper in terms of objectively measurable journalistic standards, not to any substantive expressions made therein, It is only those substantive expressions that are protected as free speech by the First Amendment. Plaintiff’s confusion of this critical difference is the crux of this case.
Response to Application for Preliminary Injunction, pages 12-13, filed on July 13, 2004
In addition to confirming that KSU officials believe the right to control content is the crux of this case, this argument is simply wrong and has been contradicted by courts across the country. As far back as 1975, a federal appeals court explicitly ruled that concerns about the “quality” of the content of a student newspaper was not a sufficient justification for taking punitive action against it. See Schiff v. Williams, 519 F.2d 257 (5th Cir. 1975).
More importantly, this argument is offensive to the very notion of what the First Amendment was intended to protect. Such a legal theory would do nothing but give public school officials and other government agents the authority to censor by camouflaging their motivation under amorphous concerns about ” journalistic quality.” Under this analysis, the government could punish journalists and ban any speech it wanted as long as it claimed its actions were based on objections to the “general quality” of the publication and not to individual stories.
Under their “new” policy, it is undoubtedly just a matter of time before Kansas State University officials censor the Collegian or another student publication after the students publish editorials or news stories critical of the university president or refuse to adopt the standards of “political correctness” endorsed by the school. And as long as the school justifies its action based on concerns about “general quality,” it will argue it has every right to ignore long-established First Amendment protections.
What is most unfathomable about this situation is that a university frequently recognized as having one of the nation’s best schools of journalism would affirmatively take this position and argue it before a court of law. From this point on, the Student Press Law Center cannot in good conscience recommend that any student attend Kansas State University or that any faculty member choose to teach or advise there. If these are the lessons about the First Amendment they are teaching in the classroom, those who care about the Constitution would be well advised to go elsewhere.
The actions taken by Kansas State University officials are already of grave concern to student journalists and media advisers around the country and could have implications for student news organizations from coast to coast as well.
This legal argument, if adopted by the courts, would overrule decades of court precedent and signal the beginning of the end of college press freedom as we know it today. The Student Press Law Center cannot imagine that Kansas State University officials want to have their names forever associated with the demise of the First Amendment on college campuses.
Before this case goes any further, we implore the administration at Kansas State to drop this offensive argument, settle this lawsuit and return Ron Johnson to his position as adviser to the student newspaper. If the university refuses to take such steps, the Student Press Law Center pledges to devote its resources to fighting the school’s censorship actions both in court and in the arena of public opinion and will urge other individuals and organizations to do likewise.
View Kansas State University’s legal response to the lawsuit filed by student journalists and their adviser.
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