For college media, summer of 2005 full of challenges

It has been a tough summer for college press freedom.

First, in early June, a federal district court in Kansas dismissed a case filed by two student editors and their former adviser, Ron Johnson, against administrators at Kansas State University who reassigned Johnson after a controversy over what school officials perceived as the lack of ‘diversity’ coverage in the student newspaper. (See ‘Advisers,’ page 16.) Judge Julie A. Robinson admitted in Lane v. Simon that the student editors were entitled to strong First Amendment protection and that under the university’s own policy, Johnson had no control over the content of the publication. Furthermore, the court recognized that Johnson was removed ‘based, in significant part’ on a ‘content analysis’ of the publication by the journalism department chair that counted the number of ‘diversity’ stories in the paper, among other things.

Despite these facts, Robinson concluded Johnson’s removal did not implicate the First Amendment rights of student editors and Johnson himself had no First Amendment right to be an adviser. In conflict with her own findings, Robinson stated that the content analysis of Collegian coverage had ‘nothing to do with the particular stories appearing in the Collegian.’ Thus, the judge’s twisted logic went, ‘the Court cannot conclude that Johnson was not reappointed because of the content of the Collegian.’

Of course, a content analysis is by definition about content. Judge Johnson’s decision would allow public colleges and universities to fire or punish advisers for content choices made by students if the school can claim it’s motivation is concern about the overall content of the publication, not individual stories. In fact, the logical extension of Johnson’s ruling would allow schools to take punitive action against student editors directly: cutting funding, restricting circulation, etc., as long as the action was being taken based on concerns about overall content.

But that was not the end of the bad legal news. A little over two weeks later, an en banc panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit threw out the lawsuit of student journalists at Governors State University in Illinois over an administrator’s demand that she be allowed to review and approve of content of the student newspaper before it was printed. (See ‘Appeals Court,’ page 24.) As is described in some detail in over cover story (see ‘Hosty,’ page 27), the court’s decision to extend a censorship standard created for high school students to those on college and university campuses is especially troubling. The ruling could open the door to limitations on college media that courts have rejected for decades.

Both of these cases are continuing. The two former editors of the Kansas State Collegian are appealing the decision in their case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. And the student plaintiffs in the Hosty case are petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to consider their claims as well. Both of these cases may ultimately have a very different outcome.

However, the harm these decisions could cause for college journalists around the nation is already beginning. Within weeks of the rulings, students and advisers were calling the SPLC asking how the cases might affect them. Some noted that their college administrators had read of the decision and, somewhat ominously, brought them to the publication’s attention.

For now, the SPLC urges all defenders of press freedom to do three things: 1) support efforts to designate student news organizations as ‘public forums’ where student editors make content decisions, 2) join us in condemning both the administration at Kansas State University and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan for pursuing these damaging cases and 3) continue to support the work of the SPLC has we work to ensure that neither of these cases represents the last word on college press freedom.