Free Speech Under Fire

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 students’ 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 Court’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 paper’s faculty advisor.

After the Innovator’s criticisms, university Dean Patricia Cater demanded that the paper’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 paper’s printer demanding they hold off on future printing until a green light was given by the school’s administrators.  This was in direct contradiction to university policy, which explicitly stated that newspaper staff and editors, rather than administrators, “will determine content and format of their respective publications without censorship or advance approval.”

Dean Carter’s contempt for dissent landed the university in court, after the Innovator’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 court’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 “designated public forum” 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 “Freedom of Repression,” that “Although 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 “qualified immunity” 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.”

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 “free speech zones,” 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 schools’ Academic Senates to classify all student and faculty-based publications as “designated public forums” 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 “editorial freedom” as “guaranteed to all student publication and other communications media.”  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 “isn’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.”

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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