The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has extended university administrators’ power to censor college and university student newspapers.
In the decision made June 20, the court ruled that the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision, permitting censorship on high school student newspapers, applies to public university and college publications.
The Hosty v. Carter case was first heard in 2001, giving rise to uncertainty over collegiate journalists’ First Amendment rights. In the case, student editors at Governors State University in Illinois sued their university after a dean told the newspaper’s printer to stop printing future issues until a university official had examined and approved the paper’s content. The paper was being censored because the editors had printed editorials and news stories that were critical of the administration. The dean’s restrictions were done despite the university’ standing policy, which allowed the newspaper’s editors to determine the content without outside approval.
Because of the controversy behind the issue, it made its way to the 7th Circuit Court, where Illinois attorney general defended the school’s right to censor its campus newspaper. In Hosty, it was requested by the university’s attorney that the Hazelwood decision be extended to public college publications.
While the decision in Hosty should technically affect only public colleges and universities that fall in the 7th Circuit — Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin — many fear that a precedent has now been set by the court, which could potentially limit the rights of all student publications.
David Adams, a professor of journalism at Indiana University and a member on the Student Press Law Center board of directors, said that Hosty could even affect independent, or “free” student publications because of the almost inevitable connection that the publication would have to the university.
“Probably 99 percent of all public college student media (publications have) some connections with their university, funding-wise,” Adams said.
Student-run publications can be connected to their university in a variety of ways: they can be housed in a university building, receive money from student fees, have electricity or other utilities paid for by the university, or their business operations may have to comply with university guidelines to avoid theft and fraud, Adams said.
For this reason, all public college and university student publications have been urged by the Student Press Law Center — which has been developing a campaign in response to the Hosty decision — to work with their university administrations to immediately declare their student media as “qualified public forums.”
“A qualified public forum is when the student publication or media has been set up to provide a ‘forum for discussion of ideas on a wide variety of topics and issues’ and that duly appointed student editors make final content decisions (not an adult, faculty or administrative staff member at the university),” Adams said.
The question of whether or not this “qualified public forum” status is applicable to student groups has been raised. If so, then most students groups, which are funded by the universities and colleges, may be vulnerable to censorship or regulation.
Michigan Student Assembly President, Jesse Levine stressed that the Hosty decision would not affect how student groups at the University were funded, despite their lack of a “qualified public forum” status.
“The decision in Hosty v. Carter does not, and will not affect the way that MSA funds student groups. MSA has and will continue to fund student organizations in a viewpoint neutral manner, supported by the Supreme Court,” Levine said.
Benjamin Bass — a former editor in chief for the Gargoyle, a University student humor magazine — said that Hosty appears threatening to student publications because it makes the First Amendment not seem applicable to college students, and reduces them to almost second-class citizens.
But Bass added that he had no fear that the Hosty decision would affect the University and its student publications.
“This sort of thing appears to happen at small schools where the student body might appear weak and submissive to a dictatorial administration,” Bass said.
“I believe there would be an uproar from the (University’s) 24,000 (students) if the administration were to try and lay a finger on the editorial freedom of student publications,” he added.
Alan Lenhoff, a general manager of Third Street Publications and co-chair for the University’s Board for Student Publications echoed Bass’s sentiments, saying that mostly smaller college publications could be at risk.
“I think the impact of these kinds of rulings is mostly on the small, weak publications,” Lenhoff said. “What about all the smaller college newspapers that operate with university subsidies or student fees, and sometimes are totally under the control of the college’s journalism department?” “These are the vulnerable newspapers,” he added.
Lenhoff said that large publications that have supportive alumni would help prevent them from being censored.
Megan Ganz, the editor in chief for the Michigan Every Three Weekly — a satirical campus publication funded by the University Activities Committee — said that the more she reads abut the decision, the more she fears its implications.
“Without the protection of the First Amendment, budding journalists and filmmakers could not fully explore their mediums without fear of reprisal,” Ganz said.
Last year, the E3W was pressured by UAC to halt distribution of an issue after questionable content was printed.
Ganz said that she does not expect the E3W to be affected by the Hosty decision, and that she expects support from the University and its respect for First Amendment rights to save it from such.
“At this point, I’m relying on the liberal atmosphere at (the University) to save the E3W from censorship. No one likes to be censored, especially not satirists. If the E3W didn’t ruffle some feathers, we wouldn’t be doing our job correctly. But I trust in our school administrators to realize that they can’t promote the University as an environment that fosters independent thought,” Ganz said.
The satirical nature of the E3W has made it the source of debate when it comes to censorship, but Ganz said that censorship should not be excused or permitted because of this.
“In my opinion, if you don’t like our paper, then you shouldn’t pick it up. College students are adults who can make their own decisions about what they will and will not expose themselves to,” Ganz said.
University spokeswoman Julie Peterson said President Mary Sue Coleman is strongly supportive of the current policy, where student publications have editorial freedom.
Peterson added that President Coleman has no intention of interfering with that, and that the Hosty decision does not affect the University’s student publications in any way.
The Hosty decision is currently being appealed to the Supreme Court, but the Court has not decided whether to hear it or not.