U.S. court throws out censorship claim by Governors State U. student journalists

ILLINOIS — In a 7-4 decision, an en banc panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit today reversed a lower court’s ruling in the college newspaper censorship case Hosty v. Carter, allowing the students’ claim of a First Amendment violation to be dismissed.

Three student journalists at Governors State University, 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 they were censored because they wrote articles that were critical of the university administration. The student newspaper, the Innovator, has not published since the incident in 2000.

Although the court of appeals did not reach the fundamental question of just what level of First Amendment protection college journalists are entitled to, the court did reach some startling conclusions in granting the university’s claim for summary judgement.

First, the court said that that the analysis of the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision, which dramatically curtailed high school students free expression rights, was applicable at the college and university level as well. In essence, the court said that under Hazelwood, a court confronted with an act of student newspaper censorship by a public college 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. The majority said that the fact a publication might be extracurricular was not determinative of its public forum status.

Second, the court held that even assuming that the Innovator was a public forum, the dean who censored the publication was entitled to qualified immunity from damages for infringing the students’ rights because she could not have reasonably known that the limitations of the Hazelwood decision did not apply to college and university student publications.

A three-judge panel of the court 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. The entire court heard oral arguments in Hosty v. Carter on Jan. 8, 2004.

The decision of the Seventh Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, should not be read as a green light for college administrators to censor, said SPLC Executive Director Mark Goodman.

“As a practical matter, most college student publications are going to be considered designated public forums, because that’s the way they’ve been operating for decades,” said Goodman.

“The bottom line is that the Student Press Law Center and the dozens of other organizations that sided with the students in this case will continue to defend the legal and ethical importance of a free and independent college student press,” Goodman stated. “Any college journalist who experiences censorship or demands for prior approval of content by school officials should contact the SPLC. We will defend their rights as we have for over three decades and will not hesitate to provide help students take their schools to court.”

Look for follow-up coverage on the SPLC Web site later this week.

Read the SPLC press release on the court’s ruling

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.Read previous coverage