The U.S. Supreme Court was asked Sept. 16 to hear a case that could substantially affect the ability of the nation’s college journalists to report free of administrative censorship.
Student journalists at Governors State University in Illinois asked the Court to reconsider the June decision of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Hosty v. Carter, where a 7-judge majority 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, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier.
Applying the Hazelwood decision to colleges could 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.
The case began when student journalists Margaret Hosty, Jeni Porche and Steven Barba sued GSU Dean Patricia Carter in January 2001 for requiring prior approval of their student newspaper.
Attorneys for the students filed a petition for a writ of certiorari, asking the Supreme Court to hear the case.
Among other things, the petition points out that the Hazelwood ruling, on which the appeals court based much of its decision, addressed only the rights of high school students. The students’ petition argues that, unlike in Hazelwood, university students are rarely minors and university publications seldom are part of a curriculum-based class.
According to the public information office of the Supreme Court, roughly 8,000 writs of certiorari are filed each year, while the justices agree to hear only about 90 cases.
SPLC VIEW: While the statistical odds of the Supreme Court reviewing the Seventh Circuit’s decision are not very promising, there are a number of reasons the Court might do so – not the least of which is the significant departure the Seventh Circuit’s decision takes from the law traditionally applied in college media censorship cases by courts in most other parts of the country and the Supreme Court’s own precedents supporting strong First Amendment protection on college campuses.
The SPLC – joined by a number of student and professional journalism groups nationwide – is currently working on an amicus brief that it will file with the Supreme Court in October, supporting the students, and urging the Court to reconsider the Seventh Circuit’s ruling.
While America’s college student media will probably have to wait several months to learn whether the Supreme Court will hear the appeal, the SPLC is urging those directly affected by Hosty to take immediate steps to protect their free speech rights. The SPLC has called on student journalists, advisers and journalism professionals to ask colleges in the 7th Circuit to formally designate their student media as public forums. The results of those requests will be reported on the SPLC’s Web site at http://www.splc.org/publicforumcolleges. In addition, the SPLC will actively discourage high school students from attending schools who refuse to sign such statements. Administrators at Illinois State University were the first to sign such a statement on Sept. 15.