Student media experts react to Governors State University ruling

ILLINOIS — Two days after a decision was handed down in the college censorship case Hosty v. Carter, opinions among those watching the case are mixed as to what kind of an impact the decision, which could allow a stricter standard of administrative control of subsidized college publications, will have.

On Monday, the 11-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, in a 7-4 decision, reversed a lower court ruling and dismissed the claims of three student journalists at Governors State University that their First Amendment rights had been violated when a school official required the students to submit the paper for prior approval.

A three-judge panel of the court had ruled in April 2003 that college newspapers are protected by the First Amendment and that public colleges and universities cannot conduct prior review of student-run publications, but the court threw that decision out in June 2003 and agreed to rehear the case.

Margaret Hosty, Jeni Porche and Steven Barba sued the school in 2001, claiming Dean Patricia Carter told their printer in the fall of 2000 not to print the paper until a school official had approved the contents. The students believe the action was the result of articles that were critical of the university administration. The student newspaper, the Innovator, has not published since the incident in 2000, although another student newspaper was started on campus.

According to the decision, when a college censorship case is brought to court, the court must first determine whether the newspaper had been established as a “designated public forum”– where student journalists make the content decisions–in order to decide whether the censorship was unconstitutional.

James Tidwell, journalism professor and acting chair of the department of journalism at Eastern Illinois University, said college newspapers that are found to be open forums will not have much trouble avoiding censorship, even under Hosty v. Carter.

“I’m guessing a vast majority of college newspapers would be found to be public forums, so I don’t see [the case] as having a great negative impact,” Tidwell said. “At least I hope not.”

Hosty said in a statement that she believes the decision would have a negative impact on college campuses.

“Doubtless, if the court’s decision is permitted to stand, the results will be disastrous for adult students in any expressive venue who might clash with prurient or political administrative interests,” Hosty said.

The court also ruled Carter had qualified immunity because she could not have known that telling the printer not to print the publication was illegal. Illinois Solicitor General Gary Feinerman said his office was relieved Carter was found to have qualified immunity, but was unsure of the decision’s impact.

“The court offered a very nuanced analysis, holding that although Hazelwood applies to college newspapers, the extent to which the administration may have input into the content of newspapers depends upon the individual circumstances at each school,” Feinerman said. “The degree of autonomy enjoyed by college newspapers will depend upon how those newspapers are set up and what internal university rules govern their operations.”

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said that is a real problem with the court’s decision.

“Traditionally, student newspapers were presumed by their very nature to be forums for free expression,” Goodman said. “This decision gives schools the chance to argue that’s not what they intended.”

And Goodman said the problem of determining forum status could even be more severe for other school funded student activities affected by the decision.

“At least most student media have a history of operating as a forum,” Goodman said. “A student group that brings speakers or shows films on campus may not have easily demonstrated that same tradition.”

Tidwell said he did not want to overreact to the decision and its possible impact, which he hopes will be narrow in its focus if applied to college newspapers.

“In college and professional media, when a big decision comes down, we tend to go around screaming, ‘The sky is falling,’” Tidwell said. “When of course it isn’t.”

–By Rebecca McNulty

Visit the SPLC’s Hosty v. Carter information page for background on the case, including recordings of oral arguments and past news stories.