Ask & receive?

To ask or not to ask for designated public forum status? 

Depending on the college, student journalists in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin have different answers to that question. Some say it is an important designation to have, while others say they have a free press at their school and do not see the need to ask their president to sign a public forum statement.

These three words — designated public forum — have become important in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the Hosty v. Carter case. The Supreme Court’s refusal lets stand a decision out of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that could give public college administrators more ability to censor student media.

In Hosty, the 7th Circuit found that the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier decision limiting high school students’ free press rights could extend to colleges. But the Hosty decision makes clear that those student publications that are operating as “designated public forums” where student editors have been given authority to determine content will have strong First Amendment protections when school officials attempt to censor them.

While some student press advocates, including the Student Press Law Center, have argued that becoming a designated public forum is the only way to ensure a free student media in Hosty’s wake, some student editors in the 7th Circuit say they do not think the designation is necessary. 

Student journalists at five universities in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin have successfully petitioned administrators to sign designated public forum statements. But some student editors said they have not asked for their student media to become a designated public forum because they do not want to jeopardize a good relationship with their administration. Some said they feel they are independent from their administration, while others simply think the Hosty decision does not affect their publication.

‘Didn’t feel exactly comfortable asking’

Joe Ahlers, former editor in chief of The Leader, a student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, said that although administrators have not signed a designated public forum statement, they have made it publicly clear they have no intention to censor the paper.

“The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran a story about the Hosty decision and whether or not it would affect the papers in the area,” Ahlers said. “They quoted our dean of students [who said] the university had no intention to censor the paper.”

Ahlers said Leader staffers do not plan on asking for an administrator to sign a public forum statement.

“We had brought it up a while back but it was the kind of situation where we didn’t feel exactly comfortable asking for it because we receive funding allocated to us by our student government,” he said.

He said he hopes the dean’s public comments will be enough to prevent any problems.

“They’ve made it publicly clear that they aren’t going to censor us, so if they go back on that then we have proof that [they] said they were going to respect our right to free speech,” he said.

‘In every way possible independent’

More than 130 miles south, Justin Smith, editor in chief of the Northern Star at Northern Illinois University, said the Hosty decision did not affect the daily paper because it is “in every way possible independent of the university.”

“We are entirely supported from ad revenue, we don’t receive any student fees,” Smith said. “The only connection we have to the university is through our publication board.”

He explained that the publication board is made up of some university officials, but the only impact it has on the paper is to approve the paper’s yearly budget.

“I’m pretty confident with the relationship we have with our administration, I don’t think they would go as far as to censor us for something,” Smith said.

Despite the good relationship, Smith said the paper took some steps to make it clear it was independent after the Hosty decision.

“We changed the wording in our masthead to reflect the idea that we are a designated public forum,” Smith said. “It’s very clearly spelled out, there’s no question.”

‘Doesn’t need validation’

Smith’s fellow Illinoisan, The Daily Eastern News Editor in Chief Kyle Mayhugh, said the student paper at Eastern Illinois University is taking a different approach to Hosty.

“We think people have overreacted to the Hosty decision,” Mayhugh said. “Our tradition as a public forum doesn’t need validation from the school president and to go to him and ask for it would only validate the idea that we need permission from him to do so.”

Mayhugh said the paper has always had a good relationship with its administration and added that the paper does not plan on changing its mind about asking for designated public forum status.

‘Just wanted to cover ourselves’

At Indiana State University, student journalists have taken a proactive approach to the Hosty decision by drafting a request to be declared a designated public forum, said Michelle Pattison, editor in chief of the Indiana Statesman.

“Our student publications board met and sent a proposal to the vice president of student affairs and he was going to pass it on to the president,” Pattison said. “Nothing has happened so far, to my knowledge the president hasn’t signed it, but he should have it.”

She said she did not see any reason why the president would not sign the statement.

“We’ve never really had any problems as far as the administration trying to censor what we publish or anything,” Pattison said. “It hasn’t really been a big deal, but we just wanted to cover ourselves.”

Pattison said she is not planning on pressing the president to sign the statement, but said if it is not signed within a few months she will look into it.

Teresa Exline, a university spokeswoman, said that the vice president for student affairs is waiting for a report from the university’s legal counsel concerning the statement before it is given to the president.

‘Get your ducks in a row’

On April 4, Ball State University in Muncie, Ind., joined four other universities in the 7th Circuit (see sidebar) that have been declared designated public forums, according to Vince Filak, adviser to The Ball State Daily News.

President Jo Ann Gora affirmed editorial independence and press freedom for all student media at Ball State during a speech she gave at the annual journalism awards banquet in April. A month later, Filak said he received an excerpt from the speech that Gora had signed.

Filak said the paper has always enjoyed editorial independence but said it was important to make sure the paper was legally protected.

“We don’t really have a problem, but we wanted to make sure that everyone was on the same page,” Filak said. “If there are people out there creating a list that says, ‘These people have designated public forums and that’s good,’ we wanted to make sure Ball State was near the top of that list.”

Filak said there was some apprehension that asking for the designation would lead some to question whether or not the paper should have editorial freedom.

“But that was really a passing fear because we knew that everybody here is committed to having that free and open student press and the university takes a great deal of pride in it,” Filak said. “We have our good days and our bad days, but overall it’s really nice to be able to walk up and say, ‘This is our student press and this is something that the students do, they do it well and they do it independently,’ as opposed to saying, ‘They write stories that we don’t like so we censor them.’”

Filak said students – especially those in the 7th Circuit – should start a discussion with their administrators about becoming a designated public forum.

“I think it’s important to take the opportunity to get everybody on the same page because you never know until you bring the conversation to the forefront,” he said. “A lot of people think they’re OK until a crisis breaks out, and that’s not when you want to try and get your ducks in a row. You want to have everything set before that situation emerges.”