NEW YORK — The free press rights of student newspapers at private colleges have been upheld after a New York state trial court recognized that private university student newspapers are separate from their universities.
The ruling, handed down on December 3, 2004, ordered that a restraining order against the school by two sexual assault victims to keep their names from being used by NYU could not be applied to the newspaper.
The plaintiffs, who were sexually assaulted in their dorm rooms in November 2003, sued the school for negligence, using their names in the court documents. Later they sought to have their names removed from the lawsuit and to keep both the university and the Washington Square News from being able to make reference to them by name. They claimed the restraining order against the school should apply to the newspaper as well because the two are affiliated. The Washington Square News staff objected and won the rights to be able to print the students’ names.
The paper never printed the students’ names, and Washington Square News adviser Angela Kluwin said the paper only wanted to protect their legal right to do so.
“It was our right to do it beforehand [and] it was our right to do it afterwards,” Kluwin said. “All we did was assert our right.”
Jeff Varcadipane, assistant to the plaintiffs’ attorney Alan Ripka, said the newspaper was named as an affiliate of the university in the injunction to prevent the Washington Square News from ever publishing the identities or making the identity of the victims known. He said because New York University funds the newspaper, the university should be able to exercise some editorial control over the paper.
“The paper is funded by the school and its offices are in school offices,” Varcadipane said, adding that the paper could not operate without the university.
The court ruled, however, that the paper is not an affiliate of the school, as the plaintiffs claimed.
“Since Washington Square News has its own First Amendment rights, over which NYU exercises no control, any order purporting to bind Washington Square News through its relationship to NYU cannot be justified, and any injunction using the term and intended to affect the rights of Washington Square News is defective and without basis in law or fact.”
Washington Square News lawyer Joe Finnerty said the case is important because it addresses whether the fact that a newspaper receives money from a school compromises the independence of the student newspaper at a private university.
“I think this case goes a long way in answering that question in favor of the autonomy of the student press,” he said.
Varcadipane said the plaintiffs do not plan to appeal the decision because they were happy with the outcome; four out of five of their requests for injunctive relief were granted. Their names in court records were stricken and replaced with pseudonyms, and the school is prevented from ever making the identities of either plaintiff known.
The plaintiffs ‘weren’t willing to spend the money [on an appeal] just to get that specific relief against the school newspaper,’ Varcadipane said.
Finnerty said since the case was not appealed, the precedent will stand.
“[The case] has some commonality with decisions that other states would be confronted with,” Finnerty said. “So I hope that all the student press out there can use it and build on it.”
Doe v. New York University, 786 N.Y.S.2d 892 (N.Y. County Sup. Ct. 2004).