PRESS RELEASE: Student Press Law Center condemns Kansas State ruling

Permission to reprint granted.ARLINGTON, Va. — The Student Press Law Center today sharply criticized the June 2 decision of a federal district court to dismiss a case filed by student newspaper editors and a former adviser at Kansas State University claiming violations of their First Amendment rights.

Editors of the Kansas State Collegian Katie Lane and Sarah Rice along with newspaper adviser Ron Johnson sued university officials last year after they removed Johnson from his position based on a “content analysis” of the publication. The analysis, the legitimacy of which has been questioned by professional journalism educators around the nation, concluded that the paper’s news coverage was lacking, specifically as it related to issues concerning “diversity.” However, the university presented no evidence that Johnson played any role in discouraging coverage of such issues and in fact noted that under university policy he had no control over the content of the paper.

For over 35 years, courts around the country have recognized that the First Amendment does not allow public colleges and universities to take any kind of punitive action against student newspapers based on their content, a fact that Judge Julie A. Robinson noted in her June 2, 2005, decision granting Kansas State University officials’ motion to dismiss the case.

Nonetheless, Robinson concluded that Johnson’s removal did not implicate the First Amendment rights of student editors.

“In 20 years of legal practice, this is the most poorly reasoned court decision I’ve ever seen,” said SPLC Executive Director Mark Goodman. “In fact, the reasoning isn’t just poor, it’s nonexistent.”

Repeatedly in her decision, Judge Robinson notes that the decision to remove Johnson “was based, in significant part, on a content analysis of the Collegian.” The court admitted that the university counted the number of “diversity” stories in the paper as part of that content analysis.

Yet Robinson went on to say that a content analysis based on the university’s assessment of the subject matter of Collegian coverage had “nothing to do with the particular stories appearing in the Collegian.”

“It’s confounding,” said Goodman. “After recognizing that the content analysis was key to the action taken against Johnson, the judge went on to say ‘the Court cannot conclude that Johnson was not reappointed because of the content of the Collegian.’ By definition, a content analysis is based on content.”

Goodman says he has every confidence that Judge Robinson’s decision will be rejected on appeal and offered the Student Press Law Center’s support for the students and fired adviser.

“This ruling reads like the ‘newspeak’ described in George Orwell’s 1984,” said Goodman. “No matter how many times Judge Robinson says ‘content isn’t content,’ her decision does not constitute valid, let alone comprehensible, legal reasoning.”

The Student Press Law Center has followed the case since it began and has condemned Kansas State University for its blatant act of censorship.

“This case goes to the very heart of the First Amendment protections college journalists have been afforded for many, many years,” said Goodman. “Student editors cannot feel safe making unpopular content decisions if they know doing so could mean the end of their adviser’s job.”

“The Student Press Law Center and many other organizations that care about the quality of college journalism and the future of the First Amendment will not stand by and let this ruling, or the offensive actions of officials at Kansas State University, go uncontested.”

CASE: Lane v. Simon, No. 04-4079-JAR (D. Kans. June. 2, 2005).
Read the decision

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.