SPLC condemns censorship at Kansas State

Over the last 30 years, the Student Press Law Center has confronted nosmall number of censorship problems at schools around that nation. But asituation continuing to unfold at a university in Kansas has prompted an extremeaction: an official SPLC statement of condemnation.

In July statement wasin response to the actions of officials at Kansas State University in removingthe student newspaper adviser based on the content decisions made by studenteditors. The SPLC has grave concerns about the legal arguments KSU officialsare making about free press protections for students at the university. Thosearguments are, quite simply, unprecedented, dangerous and offensive to the FirstAmendment.

The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Kansas State,acting on the recommendation of the school of journalism director, removedCollegian adviser Ron Johnson in May after a campus controversy over thenewspaper’s coverage. Correspondence from A.Q. Miller School ofJournalism and Mass Communications Director Todd F. Simon and Dean of theCollege of Arts and Sciences Stephen E. White released as part of the lawsuitfiled by Johnson and Collegian editors contesting the school’s actionsmake clear that the newspaper’s content was a motivating factor in the decisionto remove Johnson. 

In fact, Simon appeared to base his decision inlarge part on a superficial “content analysis” he conducted of stories publishedin the Collegian compared to stories published on the Web sites of sixother student newspapers. Simon concluded that the Collegian did notinclude sufficient “diversity” coverage.Independent of themethodological flaws in this “research,” the analysis was based on a presumptionthat student editors in fact do not have the authority to make content decisionsrelating to diversity coverage that school officials disagree with. 

The factthat student editors may choose to cover diversity issues differently fromschool administrators does not give a public university the authority to removean adviser as punishment. The First Amendment protects the right of publiccollege student editors to make their own decisions free from direct or indirectefforts to manipulate content.Officials at Kansas State, seeking tooverrule over 30 years of legal precedent on the topic, have a different view.In a court filing, they justified using the content of the student publicationas a basis for taking punitive action against it in the following way:

[The content] analysis goes to the general quality of the newspaperin terms of objectively measurable journalistic standards, not to anysubstantive expressions made therein, It is only those substantive expressionsthat are protected as free speech by the First Amendment. Plaintiff’s confusionof this critical difference is the crux of this case.

This argument is simply wrong and is unsupported in the law. Moreimportantly, it is contrary to the values of a free and independent press. Ifone accepted the university’s legal theory, public school administrators (andother government officials as well) could censor simply by camouflaging theirmotivation under amorphous concerns over “journalistic quality.” The governmentcould punish journalists and ban any speech it wanted as long as it claimed itsactions were based on objections to the “general quality” of the publication andnot to individual stories.

What is most unfathomable about the situationis that a university journalism program as outstanding as Kansas State’s wouldtake this position and argue it before a court of law. 

These actions have had achilling effect on students at the university and will continue to do so untilthe university administration makes amends. No future editors will feel safe incovering controversial issues knowing that their choices could result in theremoval of their adviser. KSU is effectively advocating the end of college pressfreedom.The Student Press Law Center implores the administration atKansas State to drop its legal argument, settle this lawsuit and return Johnsonto his position as adviser.