In a Dec. 28 filing, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan asked the U.S. Supreme Court to refuse to hear a college newspaper censorship case that has prompted concern by free press advocates.
In her brief in opposition to the petition for high court review requested by student journalists at Governors State University, Madigan argued that the case present neither the context nor the issues deserving of Supreme Court consideration.
The case, Hosty v. Carter, arose in the fall of 2000 when a dean at Governors State University in Illinois demanded that she or another GSU official be allowed to read and approve the student newspaper prior to publication. The newspaper’s student editors, who had published stories and editorials critical of the administration, refused the administrator’s demands.
In June, an 11-judge panel of the 7th Circuit, in a 7-4 decision, reversed a unanimous three-judge decision that had upheld the students’ rights. In the June decision, the 7th Circuit majority held that the Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier restricting the First Amendment rights of high school students, applied to colleges and universities as well.
A group of national student and professional news media organizations led by the Student Press Law Center filed a brief urging the Court to consider the case in October. A total of 35 organizations have offered their support for the students’ petition.
Relying largely on an argument that uncertainty about the application of the Hazelwood decision to colleges entitled the dean to qualified immunity, Madigan argued that the students had presented no arguments that would overcome that conclusion.
“Thus, no matter how interesting the petition’s legal questions [about the application of Hazelwood to colleges] may be, this case is not the right vehicle for resolving them,” the brief argues.
For those who have criticized Madigan for her lack of support for student press freedom, the brief does provide some evidence that the Illinois Attorney General is willing to defend the right of university officials to censor student publications even when the publication has been clearly designated as “public forum” for student expression.
“To the extent that [the 7th Circuit] implied that designated public forums cannot be regulated at all, the court misstated the law,” the brief says.\n
“[M]inimum standards of competence” would be a sufficient justification for censorship of student publications that are entitled to First Amendment protection as designated public forums, the brief argues.
The Supreme Court is expected to decide whether it will hear the case in early 2006.
SPLC View: The Illinois Attorney General’s attempt to portray this case as only about the procedural issue of qualified immunity is not surprising. But what is shocking is to see Madigan go beyond what this brief requires and endorse censorship for even those student newspapers operating as designated public forums. Allowing censorship based on a standard as vague as ‘minimum standards of competence’ will inevitably prompt efforts by college officials to silence legitimate criticism or enforce political correctness. Supporters of the First Amendment in Illinois need to let the Attorney General know that under her leadership, the state is doing great damage to the student press.