College journalists in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin reacted with mild concern after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit dismissed three university students’ claim of a First Amendment violation in its Hosty v. Carter decision Monday.
In the 7-4 decision the court, which has jurisdiction over Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, ruled against Governors State University students Margaret Hosty, Jeni Porche and Steven Barba. The three sued the school in 2001 for censorship, after claiming that Governors State Dean Patricia Carter told the printer of the Innovator to cease printing the newspaper unless it had been approved by a school official first.
Drawing college journalists’ attention is the appeals court’s interpretation of the Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. That decision hindered the rights of high school students by claiming that censorship is acceptable when school officials implement it in reaction to a “pedagogical concern” and now, the Seventh Circuit Court said the ruling’s framework also applies to colleges and universities.
Now, when a court in the Seventh Circuit hears cases involving censorship of a student newspaper by a public official at a college, it must first decide if the newspaper is a “designated public forum,” according to the court.
Independent student publications that are not “subsidized” by the school or that have been designated as forums where student editors make the content decisions will be protected from censorship, the court said. A staff at a newspaper with closer ties to its university and with unclear policies about who determines content might be wary of the decision, however.
Justin Hesser, editor in chief of the Daily News at Indiana’s Ball State University, a student publication partially funded by university allocations, said he was surprised by the decision but is not worried it will affect his paper anytime soon. However, if court decisions continue a trend inhibiting the rights of college journalists, the Daily News could be threatened in the future, he added.
Administrators at some universities might use the decision as leverage against student publications, but student journalists will fight back, Hesser said.
“It kind of opens up a door [for administration intervention],” Hesser said of the decision, “but hopefully it won’t [affect us].”
At Eastern Illinois University’s The Daily Eastern News, a student newspaper that receives a portion of its funding through student fees, Editor in Chief David Thill shared Hesser’s confidence that the decision would not impact his newspaper.
The Daily Eastern News has a good relationship with the administration at Eastern Illinois University but other schools might not be as fortunate, Thill said.
“I think while most college newspapers would probably be found to be public forums,” he said, “if you’re going to force people to submit their newspaper to prior inspection before you allow them to print it, I personally have a big problem with that.”
The court’s disregard for college newspapers as a place for student journalists to practice and prepare for a career in the field is problematic, Thill explained.
“One of the big things is, as a student journalist, you need to conduct yourself in a manner that is as much like a professional journalist as you can, he said.
“[The censorship the decision could bring] hinders the ability of those student journalists to learn and act as professionals,” Thill continued.
The decision also worries Southern Illinois University at Carbondale student Edmund Meinhardt, the editor in chief of the student-published Daily Egyptian, which he described as “largely independent.”
“It just exposes college newspapers to the same sort of mess that high school papers are in,” Meinhardt said. “Hazelwood was muddy anyway and this just makes it worse.
“I don’t know that it necessarily means that we’re going to have more interference but I think the possibility for abuse is there now,” he continued.
High schools sold Hazelwood to the public by saying that young students are too immature to operate independently and this decision seems to send college journalists in the same direction, Meinhardt explained.
“Generally, there are differences between the staff at a college newspaper and high school journalists that go far beyond age and maturity,” he said. “It’s definitely apples and oranges [but] they’re trying to apply the same [standard] for both [college and high school journalists].”
Joe Ahlers, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an editor of The Leader, one of the university’s two student newspapers which receives segregated student fees, held a similar view of Hazelwood being applied to college journalists.
“It’s really hard to compare high school and college,” he said. “It’s a whole different ball game when you’re talking about those because of the difference in education.”
College officials are likely to use the precedent as an intimidation tactic against student journalists but it will not have a major effect on them, Ahlers said.
Thill did not express the same degree of optimism.
“It’s a dangerous precedent to set,” Thill said. “I’m not shaking in my boots yet, but it’s cause for concern.”
–By Mike Hart
Read background on the Governors State University case, including court rulings and reaction from student media supporters, at the SPLC Hosty v. Carter information page.