Student editorial criticizes Society of Professional Journalists for award recipient choice

TEXAS — The student newspaper at the University of Texas at Austin yesterday criticized the Society of Professional Journalists for picking Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to receive the organization’s Sunshine Award at its October convention.

The annual award is given to an individual or group for making important contributions in the area of open government, according to SPJ’s Web site.

While Madigan’s accomplishments in improving public access to government records are substantial, “she is responsible for a court case that makes the jobs of student journalists much more difficult,” according to the unsigned editorial in The Daily Texan.

Student journalists at Governors State University in Illinois sued Dean Patricia Carter in January 2001 for requiring prior approval of their newspaper. A three-judge panel ruled in favor of the students.

But Madigan petitioned the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 2003 to rehear the Hosty v. Carter case, causing the court to vacate its previous decision and rule in favor of Carter.

In its decision, a majority of an 11-judge panel held that college administrators have the same ability to censor school-sponsored publications as high school administrators were given under a 1988 Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.

Applying the Hazelwood decision to colleges would give college administrators greater control over some school-sponsored student publications. The Hosty decision marked the first time Hazelwood has been applied to a college student newspaper.

“Granted, the Sunshine Award is designed to recognize groups and individuals who make important contributions to open government, and there is no doubt Madigan earned such a distinction,” The Daily Texan editorialized. “But Madigan’s deplorable treatment of student journalists negates any gains she made in the field of open government.”

SPJ President Irwin Gratz defended SPJ’s choice for the Sunshine Award in an e-mail to SPJ leaders and others last week.

“We continue to believe that, in the current hostile climate for [Freedom of Information], we need to be encouraging sympathetic government officials to wield their power in ways that benefit the press and the public,” Gratz said in the e-mail. “We are, of course, also sympathetic to the separate threat posed to student journalists in the Hosty decision.”

The Texan editorial board charged that SPJ was contradicting its free-press principles by giving the award to Madigan.

“The SPJ should reconsider rewarding Madigan who may be a proponent of the freedom of information, but is certainly no friend of a free press,” the editorial board argued.

The student plaintiffs in the Hosty case filed a petition Friday asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

by Evan Mayor, SPLC staff writer