Life after Hosty

Some student media at universities in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin may have felt left out in the cold after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Hosty v. Carter in February. The case questioned the authority of administrators at an Illinois university to censor a student newspaper that published articles critical of the school.

But student editors around the country agree it is time for college journalists to start discussing how the decision will affect their student newspapers.

“I think that every collegiate newspaper should just have conversations with their advisers just to have a better understanding of the situation and where they stand,” said Aaron Seidlitz, editor in chief of Eastern Illinois University’s student newspaper, the Daily Eastern News.

The Court’s decision in February not to hear the case lets stand a June 2005 decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that could provide university administrators with authority to censor school-sponsored speech by public college students and faculty, including speech in some student publications, at schools in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.

In order to defend against the 7th Circuit decision, student publications in those states can avoid administrative censorship by becoming “designated public forums,” the Student Press Law Center advises.

For most who have attempted it, students and advisers say that getting university officials to sign statements has been painless and simple.

“We had a good relationship with the president of our university,” said Suzanne Bell, editor in chief of The Daily Vidette, Illinois State University’s student newspaper. “We saw him and we mentioned to him the [Hosty] decision that had been going on. So he said, ‘If you bring something over to me, I’ll sign it.’”

On Sept. 15, 2005, ISU President Al Bowman signed a statement saying, “The Daily Vidette student newspaper at Illinois State University is a designated public forum. Student editors have the authority to make all content decisions without censorship or advance approval.”

Bell said the staff did not fear immediate censorship from the university, but that it was important to officially affirm the free press rights of the paper for future editors.

“We have it easy right now with President Bowman,” she said. “But say in five to ten years, we might not have a president like him.”

The Hosty Case

The case arose in the fall of 2000 when Dean Patricia Carter 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.

Carter’s directive was issued despite a university policy that said the student newspaper staff “will determine content and format of their respective publications without censorship or advance approval.”

The newspaper’s student editors, who had published stories and editorials critical of the administration, refused the administrator’s demands and their newspaper stopped publishing.

On June 20, 2005, the 7th Circuit ruled against the students, holding that college administrators can censor school-sponsored student publications using the standards set by the 1988 Supreme Court decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. That case dealt with the rights of high school students.

Since the last hope to reverse the Hosty decision died when the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, college students have been left with a feeling of uncertainty and frustration about their press rights, said Patricia Ferrier, student publications adviser at the University of Southern Indiana.

“The students seemed to be really frustrated,” Ferrier said. “They wanted an answer. They wanted things finished. They didn’t want to have to worry about it.”

The 7th Circuit’s decision is only binding in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin and is in direct conflict with decisions of other state and federal courts around the country.

The decision also leaves some student press advocates shaking their heads about the future of the journalism profession.

“I think college is training to be professional journalists,” Ferrier said. “How are they going to be professional journalists if they can’t practice? You have to have that independence.”

Becoming a designated public forum

But all is not lost for college journalists in the 7th Circuit.  Student publications that are designated as public forums can still enjoy strong First Amendment protection.

So far, administrators at four universities in the 7th Circuit have officially designated student publications at their universities as public forums.

Student journalists at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., recently tried to get their student paper designated as a public forum. Dave Studinski, editor in chief of The Ball State Daily News, described the process as uncomplicated and said administrators were cooperative.

“We never felt threatened by our president or our administration,” Studinski said. However, he said “we felt that we needed to put some things on solid ground.”

The university president was going to be giving a speech at an awards ceremony honoring state and national journalists, Studinski said, so he sent an e-mail to the communication department telling them that it would be a good opportunity to have the president affirm the free press rights of the student paper.

“As an educational institution interested in educating respectable, ethical and responsible journalists, Ball State University recognizes and affirms the editorial independence and press freedom of all student-edited campus media. Student editors have the authority to make all content decisions and consequently, they bear the responsibility for the decisions they make,” said Ball State President Jo Ann Gora on April 4, according to an editorial in The Ball State Daily News.

For Studinski and Bell, getting an affirmation of their paper’s editorial independence was easy. But many other college papers fear approaching their administrators because of intimidation, Studinski said.

“I had some people tell me, are you sure this is something you wanna push?” he said. “If we feel so confident in our [editorial independence], it should be no problem getting something in writing. It’s kind of an example of how some people are intimidated by this process.”

Establishing a practice

The most straightforward way for a student paper to be recognized as a public forum is to have a statement signed by a university administrator affirming that status. But student publications can also be recognized as a public forum by establishing a practice by putting a public forum statement in their paper, the SPLC advises.

Derek Wright, editor in chief of the Northern Star, the student newspaper of Northern Illinois University, did just that.

“We changed the wording of our masthead on our editorial pages to say that we were a semi-public forum,” Wright said. 

The new statement reads, “The Northern Star is a limited public forum whose content is determined exclusively by its student editor at Northern Illinois University. Information presented in this newspaper, its Web site and its radio station is in no way controlled by the NIU administration, faculty or staff.”