Whether distributed nationwide via subscriptions and newsstand sales or for free on college campuses, newspapers are crucial instruments to inform the public, inspire dialogue and hold institutions and public officials accountable. They are also both beneficiaries and protectors of the First Amendment rights of freedom of press. A federal circuit court decision in Hosty v. Carter last year, however, dealt a blow to these rights by upholding censorship on college campuses. The U.S. Supreme Court had a chance to undo this damage by overturning the ruling, but the justices declined, leaving the dangerous precedent as is. Allowing a university the right to censor not only robs newspapers of editorial autonomy but also chips away at First Amendment protection of speech and the press.
In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that high school newspapers are not “public forums” and therefore are not entitled to First Amendment protection. The Supreme Court argued school administrators have the right to edit or censor articles because they provide all necessary funding for the newspaper. However, when this ruling was made, it was assumed that college newspapers were exempt and that college newspaper editors had significant autonomy over the content of their papers.
Hosty v. Carter took this attack on the free press a step further. The suit was filed after administrators at Governors State University in Illinois, objecting to coverage critical of the university’s administration in a campus newspaper, told the publisher of the newspaper not to print material that had not received prior administrative review. The Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last summer in favor of the university administrators, stating that the decision reached in Hazelwood also applied to school-funded college publications.
Due to the controversy surrounding the case and the broad rulings made by the appellate court, the Supreme Court is making a mistake by denying an appeal of the Seventh Circuit’s decision in Hosty. The ruling made in Hazelwood, and now in Hosty, restricts freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The precedent set could easily be applied to any university- or student government-funded student organizations that annoy administrators, further infringing on students’ rights. If students do not learn the value of these freedoms in school, how will they be able to apply them in the future?
While The Michigan Daily is independent of the University and the ruling would not apply to this paper, the Hosty v. Carter decision is crucial for many of the nation’s college newspapers. Most college papers across the country, including many in the state of Michigan, depend in part on administrative or student fee money to operate. Counter to the Hazelwood decision, all newspapers, regardless of their source of funding, should be considered “public forums” for the reason that they publicly present information and foster dialogue among communities.
All students should be ensured the right to express themselves freely, a right not only enshrined in the Bill of Rights but also given to all other members of society. Hosty represents the notion that oversight by those funding publications trump students’ rights. Censorship, whether of a newspaper or any other student group, is not only archaic but also runs counter to the concept of a quality education.