ARLINGTON, Va. — The Student Press Law Center described today’s ruling by a federal appeals court to extend a decision limiting high school students’ free expression rights to college and university campuses as a recipe for confusion and conflict.The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled in the case Hosty v. Carter that the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood decision, which curtailed the First Amendment protections of high school students, applies to college and university students as well.Three student journalists at Governors State University sued the school in 2001, after Dean Patricia Carter ordered the printer of the student newspaper, the Innovator, not to publish until a school official approved its contents. A group of 25 state and national media organizations, university journalism schools and civil rights groups lead by the Student Press Law Center urged the court to uphold the students’ First Amendment rights in the case.The Seventh Circuit majority, in a 7-4 decision, said that that the analysis of the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision, which allowed the censorship of a high school student newspaper, should be used to assess censorship claims at public universities. The court said that a court confronted with an act of student newspaper censorship by a school official must first determine if the publication had been opened up as a “designated public forum” where students have been given the authority to make the content decisions. Traditionally, courts have presumed that a student-edited newspaper was, by its very nature, a public forum. The Seventh Circuit opinion said that even entirely extra-curricular activities could be limited by school officials under Hazelwood.SPLC Executive Director Mark Goodman said the court’s decision opened the doors to censorship of a wide variety of student and faculty expression on campuses in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, the states within the Seventh Circuit’s jurisdiction.”As a practical matter, most college student newspapers are going to be considered designated public forums and entitled to the strongest First Amendment protection because that’s the way they’ve been operating for decades,” said Goodman. “But this decision gives college administrators ammunition to argue that many traditionally independent student activities are subject to school censorship. I fear it’s just a matter of time before a university prohibits a student group from bringing an unpopular speaker to campus or showing a controversial film based on the Hosty decision. Such actions invite havoc on college campuses.””As the Supreme Court itself has noted (and the dissenting judges in this case pointed out), no where is free expression more important than on our college and university campuses where we hope to expose students to a true ‘marketplace of ideas’,” said Goodman. “This Court has snubbed its nose at that notion.”Goodman cautioned censor-prone school administrators not to read the decision as an indication that Governors State University officials had the legal authority to censor the Innovator. “What this court concluded, incorrectly, I believe, was that the application of Hazelwood to colleges was unclear enough in 2000 when Dean Carter’s actions took place that she could not be required to pay money damages to the student editors,” said Goodman. “The Student Press Law Center stands ready and willing to defend the rights of other college journalists in the Seventh Circuit and around the nation to be free from administrative censorship. We will not hesitate to seek injunctions or request declaratory relief to make the censorship stop.”Goodman said the Center will be announcing a plan of action for college journalists in response to the ruling in the next few weeks.
Read the decision: Hosty v. Carter, No. 01-4155 (7th Cir. June. 20, 2005).
For background on the case, including copies of the briefs filed, recordings of the oral arguments and links to news stories, go to the SPLC’s Hosty v. Carter information page.Contact: Mark Goodman, Executive Director
Student Press Law Center
The Student Press Law Center is a national, non-profit, non-partisan organization established in 1974 to promote and preserve the free expression rights of student journalists.