Channels Editorial: When free press comes under fire

Staff Editorial and Staff Editorial

Three years ago a dean at Governors State University in Illinois shut down the newspaper mid-cycle and told editors that administrators would now approve all stories before publication.

The students, including one named Hosty, sued and in April 2003 the 7th Circuit Court ruled that Dean Patricia Carter had violated the students’ First Amendment rights.

Two years later, the 7th District Court of Appeals overturned that decision, arguing that Carter couldn’t be expected to know that what she did was illegal.

On Feb. 21, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal for Hosty v. Carter. The result has been nationwide confusion over the boundaries of administrative censorship of college papers.

To deal with the chaos, Assembly Speaker pro Tem Leland Yee drafted legislation to protect college newspapers from censorship.

The Channels supports this legislation. We see it as the most important, forward-thinking protection of collegiate-press rights set forth in years. The law would clarify that under no circumstances could college officials legally step in and censor college newspapers.

The Supreme Court made a mistake when it declined to hear this case. Carter was exonerated because the existing precedent was too complicated for anyone to know how the First Amendment applies to college journalism. The high court could have simplified the intricacies.

The last court decision gave the impression that Carter was not guilty of violating students’ rights, which she was. This gray area opened the door for administrators to censor college newspapers.

Even though the seventh district decision covers only Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, Christine Helwick, general counsel for the California State University system, sent the following memo to college presidents June 30:

“The [Hosty] case appears to signal that CSU campuses may have more latitude than previously believed to censor the content of subsidized student newspapers, provided that there is an established practice of regularized content review and approval of pedagogical purposes.”

Whether she knows it, none of the Cal State papers subject content to adviser or administrative review. Helwick is clearly wrong.

In fact, many people are misinterpreting the Hosty ruling.

Student editors flooded the Internet in response to this bad law. They are very confused about what they can do to protect themselves from censorship. It’s time we set the record straight.

College administrators still cannot censor public forum student newspapers. The key is the paper must be a public forum.

Public forum in newspapers is a space reserved for community columns and letters to the editor.

Officials argue that they can control content because the papers are labs. But the law has never specified that this is one of the qualifiers for censorship. Other administrators argue that they can control content if the paper is subsidized by the college. But the law does not guarantee that either. Colleges are not the publishers of student newspapers even if they foot the bills. The publisher of the newspaper is the editor in chief because a committee approved by taxpayers – the editorial board – authorizes she or he for the position.

If a college was sued by any outside party for its student newspaper content, the editor in chief would be held liable – not the college. Several rulings have upheld this.

College officials can’t have their cake and eat it too. The issue of funding is only relevant if the newspaper doesn’t have a public forum.

The Hosty case upheld this.

The case found, “If the paper operated in a public forum, the University could not vet its contents.”

It is imperative college administrators understand the floodgates have not been opened. Colleges have no power over the content of open forum school newspapers. And that’s how it should be.