PRESS RELEASE: Groups urge federal appeals court to reject university’s removal of veteran Kansas State student newspaper adviser

For Immediate Release

ARLINGTON, Va. — An alliance of nine national student and professional news media and civil rights organizations led by the Student Press Law Center filed a brief yesterday urging the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse a lower court ruling that upheld the dismissal of the adviser of Kansas State University’s student newspaper after the newspaper was charged by campus officials for failing to sufficiently cover “diversity” issues.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, the group says that the June decision by a Kansas federal district court judge will have a dangerous chilling effect on college student news organizations and “goes to the very heart of the First Amendment rights of student journalists on public college and university campuses.”

Editors of the Kansas State Collegian Katie Lane and Sarah Rice, along with newspaper adviser Ron Johnson, sued university officials last year after they removed Johnson from his position based on a “content analysis” of the publication conducted by the chairman of the school’s journalism department. Johnson had been adviser of the award-winning Collegian for 15 years and has been a national leader in the field of college journalism. The content analysis, the legitimacy of which has been questioned by other journalism educators, concluded that the paper’s news coverage was lacking as it related to issues concerning “diversity.” However, the university neither alleged nor presented evidence that Johnson played any role in discouraging coverage of such issues and in fact noted that under university policy he had no control over the content of the paper. Furthermore, school officials admitted that student editors have complete authority to determine the content of the publication.

(Unlike the recent decision in the case Hosty v. Carter, where university officials claimed students did not have control over the content of the publication, in this case all parties agreed that content decisions belong to the students; they disagree on whether the removal of an adviser based on a content analysis constitutes an impermissible form of censorship. A request for review of the Hosty case is currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. See the SPLC’s Hosty information page for details.)

For more than 35 years, courts around the country have recognized that the First Amendment does not allow public colleges and universities to take any kind of punitive action against student newspapers based on their content, a fact that Judge Julie A. Robinson noted in her June 2, 2005, decision granting Kansas State University officials’ motion to dismiss the case.

Nonetheless, Robinson concluded that Johnson’s removal did not implicate the First Amendment rights of student editors. Repeatedly in her decision, Robinson noted that the decision to remove Johnson “was based, in significant part, on a content analysis of the Collegian.” The court admitted that the university counted the number of “diversity” stories in the paper as part of that analysis.

Yet Robinson went on to say that the university’s content analysis focused only on the Collegian‘s “overall quality,” and that the paper’s quality was somehow distinct from its content. This analysis, the friend-of-the court brief argues, “defies logic.”

“If [KSU officials] can take punitive action against a student newspaper based on protected content decisions simply by justifying their action as based on the ‘overall content’ of the publication, no editor can feel safe,” the brief argues. “Today, the complaint of this university is concern about a lack of ‘diversity’ coverage. Tomorrow it could be concerns about insufficient coverage of a university administrator’s pet project or excessive coverage of campus crime. In any context, the district court’s holding is a recipe for diminished journalism and limited debate in an environment where free expression is most important.”

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, expressed confidence that the court will recognize the dangers posed by the decision.

“The lower court ruling flies in the face of the First Amendment protections college journalists have been afforded for decades,” Goodman said. “Student editors don’t have press freedom if they know making unpopular content decisions could mean their adviser will be out of a job.”

A team of attorneys from Alston & Bird in Atlanta „ Adam Biegel, Paul Kaplan, Daniel Norris, Liz Day and Pam Lina „ wrote and filed the brief on behalf of the organizations.

The organizations that joined the brief are:

Student Press Law Center

American Society of Newspaper Editors

Associated Collegiate Press

College Media Advisers

College Newspaper Business and Advertising Managers

Community College Journalism Association

Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

Society of Professional Journalists

  • Case: Lane v. Simon, 2005 WL 1366521 (D. Kan. June 2, 2005)
  • Read the brief filed with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
  • Contact: Mark Goodman, Executive Director, Student Press Law Center, 703/807-1904

    The Student Press Law Center is a national, non-profit, non-partisan organization established in 1974 to promote and preserve the free expression rights of student journalists.