It is highly unlikely that most Americans see censorship of the press as protected under the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Still, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals clearly had the limitation of studentsâ€™ right to speak up in mind in a recent ruling promoting the power of college and university administrators to censor dissident students and their news publications. The drive toward media censorship in higher education got a boost this year in the Appeals Courtâ€™s Hosty v. Carter ruling. In this case, the administrators at Governors State University (just outside of Chicago) successfully shut down a campus newspaper called the Innovator, after the paper was critical of the university for wrongfully firing the paperâ€™s faculty advisor.
After the Innovatorâ€™s criticisms, university Dean Patricia Cater demanded that the paperâ€™s printer provide her with a copy of upcoming issues prior to mass run-off, in an effort to skirt future criticisms and grant prior approval. Carter even announced a directive to the paperâ€™s printer demanding they hold off on future printing until a green light was given by the schoolâ€™s administrators. This was in direct contradiction to university policy, which explicitly stated that newspaper staff and editors, rather than administrators, â€œwill determine content and format of their respective publications without censorship or advance approval.â€
Dean Carterâ€™s contempt for dissent landed the university in court, after the Innovatorâ€™s journalists and editors filed a lawsuit in early 2001. It was only this June, however, that the 7th Circuit Court ruled against the Innovator, in favor of granting the power to university administration to censor stories they deem undesirable. The authoritarian undertones of the courtâ€™s ruling are hard to ignore, considering that a majority of the judges in the ruling claimed that a previous decision by the Supreme Court (the Hazelwood decision) limiting the rights of high school students to free speech was now applicable to college and university newspapers. Hence, this decision put papers not considered as a â€œdesignated public forumâ€ in danger of arbitrary censorship by university bureaucracies.
It is certainly a sad day for freedom of expression when college administrators can unilaterally eliminate critical campus newspapers for no reason other than they do not like what views are being expressed. As John K. Wilson explains in an In These Times article entitled â€œFreedom of Repression,â€ that â€œAlthough the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals only covers Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, the decision will enable administrators across the country to censor papers without penalty. Under the â€œqualified immunityâ€ standard, state officials are only liable for violating constitutional rights when the law is clear, and the Hosty decision raises serious doubts about whether college students have any rights.â€
The Hosty v. Carter decision has recently sprung local activists into action in protecting the free speech rights of university publications and their contributors. At Illinois State University, the indy, a weekly alternative newspaper, is one of the many papers across the country dedicated to freedom of thought and diversity of opinion. ISU is only one of many schools, however, where local activists and faculty have fought against free speech censorship against such practices as establishing â€œfree speech zones,â€ outside of which students are prohibited from organizing and collectively expressing their political and social opinions. That is why campus newspapers are calling on members of their schoolsâ€™ Academic Senates to classify all student and faculty-based publications as â€œdesignated public forumsâ€ in order to prevent the contempt for civil liberties at Governors State from happening again. ISU, like countless other universities throughout the country, has provisions in its constitution promoting â€œeditorial freedomâ€ as â€œguaranteed to all student publication and other communications media.â€ Still, universities nationwide must go one step further in reaffirming the public nature of school publications in order to deter future censorship.
More than anything else at this point, student newspapers should be engaging in campaigns to persuade or lobby university administrators, trustee members, and academic to support freedom of speech and expression, no matter how unpopular the views. Editorial freedom belongs in the hands of the students, faculty, and community members who labor so hard to create newspapers willing to challenge the status quo and present unconventional views and other neglected perspectives of the world around them. If such efforts fail, diversity of thought will surely suffer in higher education.
As the Student Press Law Center explains, Hosty v. Carter â€œisn’t just about newspaper censorship. Any school-sponsored student expressive activity (including student-selected speakers, films, theater and student government) could be subject to prior approval and censorship under analysis approved by the Seventh Circuit.â€
Anthony DiMaggio teaches Middle East Politics and American Government at Illinois State University, and is the co-editor of the indy, an independent weekly newspaper based out of Bloomington-Normal, Illinois.
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