Three student journalists are headed to the Supreme Court in September, but not to cover the story of a lifetime. Instead, the students say they will be trying to protect their First Amendment rights.
On June 20, an 11-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit dismissed the censorship case brought against university administrators by former student editors of the Innovator, the campus newspaper at Governors State University in University Park, Ill. The plaintiffs, who have 90 days to challenge the decision, say they plan to appeal to the Supreme Court by Sept. 16.
Margaret Hosty, Jeni Porche and Steven Barba sued Governors State in January 2001, claiming their rights had been violated when then-Dean Patricia Carter contacted the Innovator’s printer in October 2000 and demanded that all future issues be approved by a university official prior to publication. In April 2003, a three-judge panel of the court denied the university’s attempt to have the case, Hosty v. Carter, thrown out. However, that decision has now been reversed.
The panel ruled 7-4 that the ruling in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the Supreme Court case that restricts the First Amendment rights of high school journalists, could be applicable at public colleges and universities in some instances, where a campus paper is not a designated public forum. Furthermore, the ruling stated that even if the Hazelwood decision did not extend to the Hosty case, Carter could not reasonably be expected to know that her actions might have been illegal.
The decision has raised concerns about censorship.
Hosty said she was disappointed and surprised by the ruling.
“It’s a mess,” she said. “There are so many things wrong with it.” Hosty was especially upset by the use of Hazelwood, a precedent that she says applied to juveniles, to justify the decision.
“There is never an instance where adults are tried as juveniles,” Hosty said. “It’s patently absurd.”
Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, was also disheartened by the appellate court’s judgment. He said the center had been following the case from the beginning and submitted two friend-of-the-court briefs, along with oral arguments.
“It’s a terrible decision and it’s only going to create more problems on college campuses in the Seventh Circuit,” Goodman said. He said he believes the ruling might cause university officials to believe they now have a “green light to censor,” but this is not the case.
“For students, it’s important to make sure their publications are established as ‘designated public forums’,” Goodman said. Student editors can accomplish this by verifying that their university has policies in writing giving them authority over content published in their campus newspapers.
Any restrictions the court’s ruling might place on college publications concern Valerie D. White, chair of the Black College Communication Association, an organization for faculty members teaching journalism and mass communications at black colleges and universities. White said she worries that if this verdict stands, college journalists will not get the experience they need to function in professional newsrooms.
“Medical students get to work at hospitals, dental students have live clients . . . Those examples show where students are given an awesome responsibility to practice on human beings,” White said. “But college journalists will be deprived of the education they so readily deserve when they enroll in institutions of higher learning. If Hazelwood is applied to the university, it would be a travesty of justice.”
Although the appellate court’s decision affects only those colleges in the Seventh Circuit -Wisconsin, Indiana and Illinois – student editors in other states say they are alarmed by the ruling.
“Just because we are journalists modified by [the word] student doesn’t mean we have less privileges,” said Robbyn Mitchell, a junior newspaper journalism major at Florida A&M University and editor-in-chief of Journey, the campus magazine. Mitchell said she believes the ruling could bolster university officials who already try to control campus publications.
“The administrators are abusing their power,” Mitchell said. “They want school newspapers to be public-relation crews instead of training grounds for future journalists of America.”
The students, who until now have represented themselves in court, are searching for an attorney to take their case to the high court.
Porche, Hosty and Barba still attend Governors State, they say, to avoid having their case dismissed.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.