College newspapers must operate independently

College students in three states might soon feel like they are back in high school if the Illinois attorney general and administrators at Governors State University win their case against the student newspaper, the Innovator. The attorney general filed an appeal with the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, which interprets law in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana, arguing that college students should have the same free speech limits as high school students, whose publications are subject to administrative censorship. If the appeal is upheld, it will be a significant setback to independent student publications, which helped to end the Vietnam War, expose the horrors of sweatshop labor and continue to be an active force for change.

The appeal results from a January 2001 lawsuit by the editor in chief, managing editor and reporter of the Innovator – Governors State University’s
student-run paper. The editor in chief and managing editor, who were hired by the GSU Student Communications Media Board, were told the students “will determine content and format of their respective publications without censorship or advance approval,” in accordance with the board’s policy. However, less than a year later the paper was effectively censored after some of the news stories, editorials and letters to the editor had been critical of the administration. GSU Dean Patricia Carter contacted Regional Publishing Company, which held the contract for printing the Innovator, and told the company not to publish any papers without first receiving her or another administrator’s approval. Fearing the university would withhold payment, the company obliged, and the paper has not published since.

Ironically, GSU’s mission statements reads, “Our mission is to cultivate and enlarge a diverse and intellectually stimulating community of learners guided by a culture that embodies openness of communication.” While apparently they consider the First Amendment to be a little too open, recent court rulings, fortunately, have not.

The U.S. District Court system has previously rejected attempts to apply high school standards to college students, which is the main argument of GSU’s administration. The attorney general is relying on Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier – a decision that determined administrative censorship of high school students did not violate the First Amendment. The high school students were part of a
rudimentary journalism class that published a newspaper as a final project. In denying them protection of free speech rights, the court ruled their newspaper was a nonpublic forum and therefore not entitled to protection.

However, in Kincaid vs. Gibson, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled that the Hazelwood decision did not apply to college students. The court opinion was that a yearbook designed by Kentucky State University students was a limited public forum and therefore KSU administrators’ efforts to ban its distribution were unconstitutional. If a yearbook is considered a limited public forum, then a newspaper with a letters to the editor section is at least the same. Additionally, it would be inappropriate to compare high school students to college students, especially at GSU, where the average age of the student body is 35. And to consider high school students taking a journalism course to be equal with college journalists who often hold internships with local papers is ridiculous.

While it is honestly more likely the court will rule in favor of the Innovator, it is important to understand the case’s significance. If the court does rule in favor of GSU, students in the three-state area would lose their established First Amendment rights on campuses. The content of student newspapers would then be subject to administrative approval. Such a ruling could also be extended to other campus forums as well, such as campus speakers, films and lectures by faculty members, which could be banned or filtered, according to a friend-of-the-court brief filed by more than 25 university journalism schools, media organizations and civil rights groups. Student newspapers would also lose their influence because readers would know the content would be pre-approved by college administrations, making the newspaper nothing more than a university bulletin service.

The 7th Circuit cannot allow this to pass. It must rule against the Illinois attorney general and GSU administrators. While the school’s administration might think it has legitimate complaints about criticisms it receives in the newspaper, it should understand that as a public forum, the Innovator would facilitate a response. If the administration thinks it has a public relations problem with a critical newspaper, this will be insignificant if GSU is known as the school that prohibits free speech.