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Planning stage for Project Newsie Freedom and some history on U.S. college media rights

SPRING 2012: Planning stage for Project Newsie Freedom

After discussions with some of my professors at the University of Kansas, I’ve decided to make this semester a planning period where I’ll construct a process with which to proceed my investigation into student newspapers in the summer. I also will focus on Kansas college media first.

I’ll provide updates on this process and throw out some ideas. But in the meantime, I will be aggregating news about college media rights and giving some of my experiences. Today, let me present you with some history I dug up while doing a research project last summer. It’s pretty raw because it consists of excerpts from a larger paper.

Not-so-short history on College Media Rights

In the past 10 years, the number of incidents of student newspaper adviser removals, newspaper thefts, and other actions considered as attacks on student media have increased. Ocean County (N.J.) College, Le Moyne (N.Y.) College, Kansas State University, and most recently the College of DuPage (Ill.) are institutions of higher education that have hit a student media adviser with removal or reassignment. This is a progression of battles between censorship and free press for a century.

According to Merriam-Webster, censor is defined as:

To examine in order to suppress or delete anything considered objectionable <censor the news>; also : to suppress or delete as objectionable <censor out indecent passages>

The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution through the Bill of Rights is one of the most popular amendments in American lingo. It states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Originally, the Constitution was criticized for its lack of guarantees for civil liberties; the Bill of Rights was signed in 1791 to grant these liberties to all Federal laws. In 1925, a ruling on Gitlow v. New York held that the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment extended those liberties to state laws.

The right of free press has always been a point of contention between governing bodies and media outlets in the United States. Many court cases have paved the way for the extent of freedom of the press today. One Supreme Court case, Near v. Minnesota, displayed the concerns with media content.

Near v. Minnesota

Near v. Minnesota featured the Saturday Press, a muckraking scandal publication by Jay Near in Minneapolis, which was prosecuted by the Minnesota county attorney through a “Gag Law” the Minnesota legislature passed in 1925. This Gag Law stated that any “’malicious, scandalous and defamatory,” newspaper articles are public nuisances. The legality of this law was put to the test in this court case after the Saturday Press published articles that accused Minneapolis’ Mayor, Police Chief, and County Attorney of criminal offenses and it printed anti-semitic remarks. The Hennepin County District Court found Saturday Press to be a nuisance and suppressed Near’s rights to produce a newspaper.

But after the case went to the Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes, the ruling was reversed and the Gag Law was found to violate the First Amendment. In this landmark case that allows scrutiny of public officials, Hughes stated:

This decision rests upon the operation and effect of the statute, without regard to the question of the truth of the charges contained in the particular periodical. The fact that the public officers named in this case, and those associated with the charges of official dereliction, may be deemed to be impeccable, cannot affect the conclusion that the (Gag Law) imposes an unconstitutional restraint upon publication.

While college media is a special type of media that is often funded by the governing college and advised by college employees, it still retains First Amendment rights. But the level to which it is granted the rights of free press is debatable. Most precedents of student media rights sprung from the 1969 Supreme Court’s ruling on Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. In that decision, the court ruled that students in public schools are entitled to First Amendment rights as long as their free expression is not disruptive or vulgar. This gave basic protections to student reporters, editors, photographers and designers.

Public forums and Hazelwood

Classifications such as “public forum,” “limited public forum” and “non-public forum” determine the level of free press for student media today. Student newspapers are often defined under these three categories. In the 1988 Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court case, the court changed its precedent and ruled that public school officials can censor student speech in official student publications not designated as public forums even if the speech isn’t disruptive or indecent.

Leading up to that case, Hazelwood East (Mo.) High School’s student newspaper, the Spectrum, was set up in conjunction with a journalism class. The adviser to the newspaper regularly sent proofs to Principal Robert Reynolds for review before print. In 1983, Reynolds received proofs that contained stories about teenage pregnancy and the effects of parental divorce. Contending that the stories may not be suitable for the high school student population, and that those individuals mentioned in the stories whom were given pseudonyms may still be recognizable, Reynolds eliminated the stories rather than cancel the issue. The issue was brought up to the Supreme Court, and its ruling in favor of Reynolds’ decision gave a blueprint for school officials to control student media.

The Hazelwood decision applies to school-sponsored media that aren’t public forums for students. In deciding whether a student publication is a public forum, limited public forum or non-public forum, courts use forum analysis. Someone’s speech in the middle of a town’s public square is granted greater First Amendment protection than speech in a private office. The town’s public square is considered a public forum, while the private office is in most cases, a non-public forum. According to the Student Press Law Center’s “Hazelwood Guide,” to determine whether student media is a public forum and immune to the Hazelwood ruling, the court has to rule if the government “must accommodate virtually all speakers”(public forum), has opened the forum “for a specific expressive purpose or for free speech use by a specific group of people (such as student journalists)” (limited or designated public forum), or if the forum isn’t open to the public at all (non-public forum). Student publications in this analysis, are often considered to be public forums.

Hazelwood didn’t overrule Tinker’s precedent and actually reinforced it in its explanation. But it did limit the reach of Tinker to high school student media. Courts constantly rejected the application of Hazelwood to college media, until the 2005 ruling of Hosty v. Carter.

Hosty v. Carter setback

In 2000, Governors State University’s (Illinois) Dean Patricia Carter told the editor of the student newspaper, The Innovator, to hold issues until they were approved by university administrators after the Innovator published stories and editorials that were critical of the administration. The order was in direct conflict with the Innovator’s policy, which stated that the student editors would “determine content and format of their respective publications without censorship or advance approval.” Three editors went to court against Carter and were defeated when the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Hazelwood was a “starting point” for analyzing college censorship cases. Despite the court viewing the Innovator as a designated public forum, it also said that Hazelwood determines First Amendment protections to collegiate journalists. The SPLC states, “Hosty creates a door to censorship that college officials can – if they take certain steps – manufacture the keys to unlock.”

State initiatives for free collegiate press

In response to Hosty and Hazelwood, many First Amendment advocates pushed state governments to pass laws protecting college media rights. Oregon, California, Kansas, and Illinois have enacted free expression laws protecting student journalists. For example in Illinois, the College Campus Press Act is a shield that declared all student media at public colleges as public forums. It also stated that advisers cannot force editorial decrees to student journalists and cannot be retaliated against for not regulating media content. The Act effectively nullified the Hosty ruling in Illinois.

Since the Press Act was a response to Hosty in Illinois, it didn’t reverse or affect the case’s ruling in Wisconsin and Indiana. This was still a major victory for college journalism in Illinois. The Act went through its first major test in 2009 at College of DuPage, when Trustees Kory Atkinson and David Carlin revised the Board Policy Manual to put the Courier student newspaper under President Robert Breuder’s control. The Courier printed an editorial stating that this move would be a violation of the Press Act and the editor spoke at the Board meeting protesting the proposed changes to the manual. As a result, many of the policy changes were removed, including the clause that put student publications under Breuder’s control. Also in 2009, Chicago State University Tempo editor George Providence II and his adviser Gerian Moore applied the Press Act to a lawsuit against the university, which it claims to have censored and disrupt the newspaper’s publication. That case is still in progress.

Court cases and laws have made up the timeline of college newspaper rights. It’s a constantly changing atmosphere in which colleges and universities have found ways to censor student media, and courts and laws have repeatedly nullified those avenues. This is a clear sign that the public will support a college journalist’s right to free speech and free press. As recent history suggests, hopefully laws and court cases will continue to adapt to these loopholes and block censorship of any kind to support the First Amendment rights of college media.


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