Memo linking California with Hosty decision worries students

CALIFORNIA — California may be 2,000 miles away, but college students there are beginning to see the effects of the Hosty v. Carter decision out of a federal appeals court in Illinois.

Decided by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in June, the Hosty decision held that the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood decision limiting high school student free expression rights could extend to college and university campuses.

Ten days after the decision, a memo was sent to presidents of the California State University system that included a discussion of the case’s possible impact on the Golden State.

“[T]he case appears to signal that CSU campuses may have more latitude than previously believed to censor the content of subsidized student newspapers, provided that there is an established practice of regularized content review and approval for pedagogical purposes,” wrote CSU general counsel Christine Helwick.

With 24 campuses and more than 400,000 students, the California State University system is the largest in the country.

A number of advisers and students at CSU schools who saw a copy of the memo said they are concerned about the future of student press freedom in their state — a state that generally is seen as supportive to free expression.

“We got kind of nervous,” said Brea Jones, a news editor for The Orion, the student newspaper at CSU-Chico. “We are not certain that CSU or our university in particular is really interested in censorship, but it alarms us that they would apply Hosty v. Carter to California universities.”

Jones said her paper is in talks with CSU-Chico’s president to recognize its status as a “designated public forum,” which would exempt the paper from any effects the Hosty decision may have in California.

And, in light of the memo, media advisers across the state are encouraging their newspaper staffs to do the same, said Sylvia Fox, president of the California College Media Association.

“We are taking a proactive approach in helping the colleges get signed off as public forums,” Fox said. “We will be willing to step in to help any college whose administration is reluctant to recognize it.”

The court ruled in Hosty that censorship can include material that is “ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched,” and “biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences,” as well as material that associates the school with “any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy.” The student plaintiffs in Hosty have said they will ask the Supreme Court to hear the case.

Helwick said the memo was meant to be advice for CSU presidents. She was not aware the memo had been circulating around the state.

“I’m not opining on ‘here’s the state of the law.’ I’m just sending out clips to my clients,” she said. “We don’t know where California is going to go. [Hosty] is an interpretation that’s new, and it may be picked up by California.”

Fox said she isn’t aware of any presidents who have increased their oversight over student newspapers since the memo was sent, but that her group is “just trying to be proactive.”

“I am not getting any calls from advisers who are fearful that they will be censored, but we are trying to protect students’ rights right now,” she said. “I think most university presidents are clear that they want a vigorous free press.”

Dave Waddell, adviser to The Orion since 1996, agrees with Fox.

“There is a profound respect for a free, vigorous and responsible student press. I think it’s a good atmosphere,” he said of Chico State’s environment.

But Waddell said the attempt by his students to get their publication recognized as a public forum is “symbolic.”

And while Helwick noted in her memo that Hosty is from another jurisdiction and does not directly impact CSU, advisers believe they still have some reason to worry.

“I think California has pretty strong laws in it’s education code about protecting free speech of [high school and community college] students, so I was surprised,” Waddell said. “That’s the danger of those kind of decisions. You get people going off on all different kinds of tracts they shouldn’t be going down.”

-By Evan Mayor