Supreme Court rejects student government election case

NEW YORK — The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to review a2007 appellate court ruling that said student government officials could not besued for violating student journalists’ First Amendment rights.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in July 2007 partially upheld adistrict court ruling that College of Staten Island administrators had violatedstudents’ First Amendment rights when they cancelled a student governmentelection after the student paper published an endorsement of one of the partiesrunning for election. But the court dismissed the student government membersfrom the case, finding that they were not state actors.

The court, however, did not set a standard for when a student governmentofficial could be considered a state actor, said Frank LoMonte, executivedirector of the Student Press Law Center.

The College Voice, a student paper at the College of Staten Island,published a February 1997 endorsement in of the Student Union, a campus groupthat had candidates running in the student government election. In May 1997, theStudent Election Review Committee postponed the election already in progress,claiming the Voice had violated election rules. College of Staten IslandPresident Marlene Springer nullified the election results five days later.

Voice editors sued the college and student government officers,claiming their free-speech rights were violated.

The 2nd Circuit’s rulingconflicts with other courts’ rulings on student governments being state actors,including an 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in Gay and LesbianStudents Association v. Lyle Gohn that said the student government at theUniversity of Arkansas in Fayetteville acted as a state agency, said RonMcGuire, an attorney for the Voice editors.

“The 2nd Circuit is the only court that has ruled that student governmentoffices are not state actors in cases where they’ve violated the rights ofstudents,” McGuire said.

But McGuire said the case did establish “very important legal principlesfor student press” — that administrators at public colleges cannot requirea student paper to balance its published opinions, that college officials arenot entitled to qualified immunity when they come out with unique or newreprisals against student editors, and that students have a right to sue infreedom of the press cases.

The Student Press Law Center filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf ofVoice editors.

The Supreme Court decision means the 2nd Circuit ruling will stand asprecedent in that circuit, which covers New York, Connecticut and Vermont.

LoMonte said the 2nd Circuit’s decision that the student government was nota state actor could affect future student press censorship cases.

“We are increasingly seeing incidents in which student government cuts offfunding to student publications to retaliate for the publication’s content,”LoMonte said. “When that happens, student editors need a recourse and it’sunfortunate that the 2nd Circuit would deny them that recourse.”

The SPLC could not reach anyone from the College of Staten Island forcomment Wednesday afternoon.