GUEST COLUMN: Missouri Maneater April Fool’s controversy offers “teaching moment” for school disciplinary authorities

Dead On Arrival–that was the status of the letter from the Office of Student Conduct to The Maneater’s editors caught up in the April Fools’ foolishness.  Everyone I talked to at the University of Missouri School of Journalism, from the dean on down, was incensed by the notion of disciplinary action against the student editors.

And don’t forget the university’s own legal-staff members.  Some of them still feel the burn from the U.S. Supreme Court’s spanking in the 1973 case of Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri.

Would any of us at this university want to see a repeat of Papish?  Of course not.  Even the Office of Student Conduct administrator, who apparently had no institutional memory of that case and no grounding in First Amendment law, would not want to see a repeat of that humiliation.

This episode reminds me of an incident over a decade ago, when the Boone County prosecutor got a Boone County judge to sign a search warrant for a knock-and-enter search of KOMU/NBC, the TV station licensed to the University of Missouri.  Of course the search was illegal!  But the prosecutor and judge had no clue that the Privacy Protection Act of 1980 generally protects newsrooms from knock-and-enter searches, instead requiring use of a subpoena duces tecum.

When KOMU got searched, it was a teaching moment for the authorities in Boone County, just as the letter incident involving the Office of Student Conduct is proving to be a teaching moment.

Battles for First Amendment freedoms are never totally won.  The fight continues so long as not everybody in power has gotten the message that our Constitution requires, and our Supreme Court enforces, protection of even offensive language.  Thank you, Frank LoMonte, for your vigilance and for your letter to the Office of Student Conduct.

Now the training part of this sorry episode begins.  An administrative staffer has invited several of us to appear on a panel about lampoons, stereotypes and the First Amendment.  Maybe the letter writer from the Office of Student Conduct should get a hand-written invitation.

Dr. Sandra Davidson, Ph.D., J.D., teaches communications law at the Missouri School of Journalism. She wrote about the Maneater controversy in an April 13, 2012, guest column in The Missourian