WASHINGTON,D.C. — The U.S. Supreme Court announced this morning that it willnot hear a case that questioned the authority of administrators at an Illinoisuniversity to censor a student newspaper that published articles critical of theschool.
The Court rejected a request by former student journalistsat Governors State University in Illinois to review a lower court decision thatcould give university officials in three Midwestern states the authority tocensor some college student speech based on a legal standard that had previouslybeen applied only to high school and elementary school students andteachers.
As is its usual practice when ruling on whether or not to accept acase, the Court did not issue a written opinion to explain itsdecision.
The Court’s ruling lets stand a June 2005 decision by the7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that could open the door to providinguniversity administrators with authority to censor school-sponsored speech bypublic college students and faculty, including speech in some studentnewspapers, at schools in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.
Theappeals court ruled that the Supreme Court’s 1988 decision inHazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier,which has been used to restrict the First Amendment rights of elementary andhigh school students and teachers, applied to colleges and universities as well.The appeals court decision was in stark contrast to over three decades of lawthat has provided strong free speech protection to college student journalistsand protected them from censorship by school officials unhappy with what studentmedia published.
By refusing to hear the case, the Court lets standthe extension to colleges of a censorship standard it created to oversee speech by studentsas young as five years old. The 7thCircuit’s decision is only binding in three states and is in direct conflictwith decisions of other state and federal courts around thecountry.
Today’s ruling disappointed student press advocates.
“The appeals court decision last year turned on its head thetraditional belief that a university is a ‘marketplace of ideas’ where speechfrom all sides is not only tolerated, but encouraged. We hoped that the SupremeCourt would step in to reaffirm that important principle,” said Mark Goodman,executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “We are very disappointedthat the Court left that issue to be decided another day.”
A group of15 national student and professional news media organizations led by the StudentPress Law Center filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the students inOctober urging the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case, and warning that the 7thCircuit’s decision posed a threat to free speech on America’s college anduniversity campuses. Similar briefs were filed by groups of journalism educatorsand civil rights organizations.
Today’s ruling comes more than fiveyears after a dean at Governors State University demanded that she or anotheruniversity official be allowed to read and approve the student newspaper,the Innovator, prior to publication.The newspaper’s student editors, who had published stories and editorialscritical of the administration, refused the administrator’s demands. TheInnovator has not been publishedsince.
Legal experts point out that although today’s decision mayencourage more efforts by college administrators to censor, the lower court’sdecision still recognizes that college student publications can be established in a way that gives students strong First Amendmentprotections.
The Student Press Law Center is encouraging students inIllinois, Indiana and Wisconsin to call upon their schools to pledge theircommitment to free speech by explicitly designating their student media as”public forums” where student editors have the right to make editorial decisionsfree from administrative interference. Since the appeals court decision inJune, a small number of schools in the 7th Circuit have done so, but it isexpected that others will follow as student and faculty groups demand suchaction. (See http://www.splc.org/publicforumcollegesfor details.)
“This ruling changes the playing field. People inIllinois, Indiana and Wisconsin who care about free expression need to takesteps today to defend a free student press if they want to ensure a free presswill be around tomorrow,” Goodman said.
Goodman said it is importantto make clear that today’s ruling leaves free expression protection limited onlyin the three states of the 7th Circuit. The strong First Amendment protectionafforded the college student press by courts in the rest of the country remainsunchanged, he says.
But no matter where they are located, Goodmanwarns, public college or university administrators looking to crack down ontheir student media had better be ready for a fight.
“This battle isfar from over,” he said. “By refusing to take this case, the Supreme Court haspostponed the legal conclusion for another day. But the Student Press Law Centerstands ready to help college student journalists at any school in the countrywho find their right to publish freely under attack. We will not hesitate totake other schools to court in defense of student press freedom.”
- Case name: Hosty v. Carter, No. 05-377
- Contact: Mark Goodman, Executive Director, Student Press Law Center, 703/807-1904
- Background: Visit the Student Press Law Center’s information page on the case
The Student Press Law Center (www.splc.org) is a national, non-profit, non-partisan organization established in 1974 to promote and preserve the free expression rights of student journalists.
- Lance Speere is a media adviser at Southern Illinois University and is the national president of College Media Advisers (www.collegemedia.org), the professional organization of those who advise college student news organizations. He can be reached at 618/536-3307.
- Greg Lukianoff is interim President and Director of Legal and Public Advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (www.thefire.org). FIRE was among the organizations that filed a brief in support of the students in the Hosty case. He can be reached at 215/717-3473.
- John K. Wilson is the founder of www.collegefreedom.org and the author of “Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies” (Paradigm Publishers, forthcoming in 2006). He is an informal adviser to the student plaintiffs in Hosty and maintains a Web site about the case at www.collegefreedom.org/gsu.htm. Wilson is a consultant to and former coordinator of the Independent Press Association’s Campus Journalism Project. He can be reached by e-mail or at 773/572-5584.