The key elements of the First Amendment, from freedom of speech to separation of church and state, have been under increasing attack by state and national legislation, judicial rulings and even public skepticism over the past few years. In a rehearing of Hosty v. Carter, the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals unleashed its own assault on the freedom of press last month by ruling against three Governors State University students who claimed that the school’s administration violated their First Amendment rights in ordering their campus newspaper, which was subsidized by the univeristy, to stop printing. The ruling threatens the ability of college students to maintain a free press and jeopardizes the open academic environment that characterizes public universities, particularly if its precedent is extended to other student groups. With the future of free expression on campus appearing uncertain, the University must recognize that the court decision in no way legitimizes censorship of the publications or organizations it funds and should make it clear to students that it will continue to respect their right to free expression.

Although the decision would not apply to The Michigan Daily, which receives no funding from the University, most campus newspapers ­— like Michigan State University’s State News, which is subsidized by a five-dollar student fee — could be threatened under the ruling. The decision could effectively end the ability of school-funded newspapers to act as objective campus observers and hold administrators accountable for their actions. Even without direct restrictions, the concern of losing funding could cripple many student publications, driving them to self-censor their coverage.

The censorship debate already reached the University last March when the University Activities Center pressured The Michigan Every Three Weekly, a satirical publication that receives student fees from the University through UAC, to halt distribution of an issue because of its questionable content. Although University officials later came out firm in their assertion that the E3W had the right to print freely, the court’s ruling could make this sort of defense no more than a fond memory.

Under the ruling, University officials may no longer be required to ensure students the unfettered ability to express their opinions. The new precedent could also be applied to pull funding from student groups whose work might counter the interests of administrators or offend influential alumni and legislators. The work of activist groups like the Students Organizing for Labor and Economic Equality could be at risk to lose funding for promoting views that University officials may prefer to ignore. Fear of losing funding could hamper efforts of more controversial student organizations to promote their causes and could detract from the broad range of ideas and opinions on campus.

Freedom of speech has taken a beating in recent years not only in the courts but in society as well, particularly among younger Americans. A survey conducted by the University of Connecticut early this year revealed frightening results: One-half of high school students thought the government should have the ability to decide what is acceptable to print. The freedoms that played a critical role in the nation’s democratic foundation are increasingly deemed as burdensome or even unpatriotic. While America fortunately still falls far from the doomsday picture of George Orwell’s “1984,” the Hosty decision is one more way of legitimizing a culture of censorship among America’s future leaders.

The University should issue a statement from President Mary Sue Coleman visible to all students, preferably on the front page of its website, making it clear that it will adhere to its current policy of allowing complete freedom of expression among the student organizations it subsidizes. Regardless of this new judicial precedent, any censorship would be a clear violation of student rights and would be severely detrimental to the campus environment. Unrestricted student groups and publications on campus may annoy university officials, but annoyance is a small price for preserving such vital freedoms.

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