Court: College official violated First Amendment by canceling campus elections

NEW YORK — A college president who canceled student government elections after the campus student newspaper endorsed a candidate violated the First Amendment, a federal court ruled. But College of Staten Island President Marlene Springer is not subject to monetary damages in a lawsuit filed against her because she did not know she was breaking the law at the time, the court said.

The College Voice, one of three student newspapers at the College of Staten Island, published an election issue in February 1997 endorsing the Student Union, a new campus group. On May 1, 1997, the Student Election Review Committee postponed the election already in progress, claiming the Voice was not following election rules. Springer nullified the election results five days later.

In her explanation, Springer said the Voice had used student funds inappropriately by publishing an issue she called a “thinly veiled piece of campaign literature” promoting the Student Union slate.

A group of student reporters claimed their right to free speech was violated by Springer’s decision to cancel the election based on the content of the Voice’s election issue.

In August, District Court Judge Nina Gershon ruled that university action taken as a direct result of views printed in a student newspaper violates the First Amendment.

“There are no subject matter restrictions on what the newspaper may publish. The chill on expressive freedom is the same,” she said.

But Gershon ruled that Springer was eligible for “qualified immunity,” which shields government agents from liability if the official did not violate constitutional rights that were clearly established at the time.

Gershon said that in 1997, laws clearly established that college newspapers had the right to print election-related coverage without consequences. However, since no previous case had spelled out that canceling a student government election could be considered a consequence for content, Gershon said Springer could not have known she was violating the First Amendment.

Ron McGuire, an attorney representing the student reporters, plans to file notice of his appeal.

Student Press Law Center Legal Consultant Mike Hiestand said the qualified immunity exception was not surprising. With qualified immunity, government officials get “one free strike.” But the circumstances that grant an official this immunity need to be broader, so officials do not gain immunity on technicalities, he said.

But “the substance of the law [in the court ruling] was good for student media,” Hiestand said, because the decision affirmed that colleges cannot censor indirectly by taking action in response to content.

CASE: Husain v. Springer, 336 F.Supp.2d 207 (E.D.N.Y. 2004)

See previous coverage: Staten Island paper loses at trial court