Second Circuit Court rules in decade-old student government election case

NEW YORK — The Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals partially upheld a district court ruling today, finding that a college president did violate the First Amendment when she nullified student elections after the school newspaper published an endorsement for a candidate. The court also remanded the determination of the president’s liability to the district court.

Rather than granting summary judgment on the question of qualified immunity to College of Staten Island President Marline Springer, the three-member court sent the case back down to the district court for factual issues to be resolved before qualified immunity can be determined.

“This has a been a real vindication for the students who…published the newspaper and who understood 10 years ago that their rights had been violated,” said Ron McGuire, an attorney representing the student reporters. “Basically what the circuit said was that the would not permit college officials to come up with creative ways of affecting the content of student publications. “

The College Voice, one of three student newspapers at the College of Staten Island, published an election issue in February 1997 endorsing the Student Union, a campus group running candidates in the election. On May 1, 1997, the Student Election Review Committee postponed the election already in progress, claiming the Voice had violated election rules. Springer nullified the election results five days later.

The case was not, however, a total victory for the student journalists. The court ruled student government officials could not be held liable for violating the journalists’ First Amendment rights because they were not state actors.

“We’re disappointed about the ruling that the student government officials cannot be sued under the federal civil rights rules,” McGuire said. “We are considering where we go from here on that decision.”

McGuire said an appeal could be filed for the case to be re-heard by the circuit court on the issue of liability of the student government officials, or a petition could be filed with the U.S. Supreme Court.

“It has become very common for student government officials to censor student newspapers,” McGuire said. “I feel that we have an issue now where several circuit courts have already held that student governments are involved in state action.”

“However, this is the first circuit court that I’m aware of that has ruled to the contrary,” McGuire said. “So there is clearly a disagreement among the circuit courts on this issue. And it becomes really a question of whether this is best addressed by the circuit again or by the Supreme Court.”

McGuire said an application for a rehearing with the circuit court would need to be filed within 14 days, and a petition to the U.S. Supreme Court would need to be filed within 90 days.