College students deserve free expression

Friday, October 15, 1999

For years, supporters of campus press freedom have feared a judicial attack on college media, but no one dreamed it would come in the form of a purple yearbook.

It’s been 11 years since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its decision in Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier. In that case, the court found that a high school newspaper was an educational exercise and as such, not entitled to full First Amendment freedom.

For years, Hazelwood was applied only to high school media, and no court tried to extend these limits to college media.

All of that changed with the recent 2-1 federal appeals court decision in Kincaid vs. Gibson upholding an extraordinary example of censorship at Kentucky State University.

The case stems from an incident in 1993 when the campus newspaper adviser was transferred after resisting attempts to censor the newspaper. Although she was quickly reinstated, the dispute was followed by a battle over the fate of the college yearbook, which was published about the same time.

The administration at Kentucky State refused to distribute 2,000 copies of the yearbook, which to this day remain in storage.

Officials maintained they blocked distribution because they were dissatisfied with the quality and because the cover was purple rather than in the school colors.

Apparently, university officials thought this was one ugly yearbook. They objected to the title of the book, “Destinations Unknown,” as well as the fact that it included pictures of public figures and current events and apparently relatively few photos of school events.

A number of photos also apparently ran without captions.

When the university decided to suppress the yearbook, a lawsuit was filed arguing that the yearbook staff’s First Amendment rights were violated.

At first glance, there’s a temptation to say, “What’s the big deal?” Clearly, the students did not do a very good job of putting out the yearbook, and the college was embarrassed.

The big deal is that students have a right to express themselves through campus media. Some do this more artfully and professionally than others.

But is it appropriate for a state university — an arm of government — to decide which ideas meet its standards? Do we really want to open the door to suppression of any and all ideas because the university asserts an interest in quality control?

A number of observers — including the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the American Society of Newspaper Editors — have decried the decision as a precedent that could threaten First Amendment rights for college journalists across the country.

To be sure, there’s room for second-guessing the 6th Circuit panel. The court treated the yearbook as a public relations vehicle and asserted that it doesn’t qualify as a public forum protected by the First Amendment.

The court’s shorthand analysis suggests that the test for determining whether the university intended to establish a free-expression zone is whether the publication was created with state-owned hardware and materials.

If that’s the test, journalists in virtually every high school and college newsroom can be immediately stripped of their First Amendment rights.

Most puzzling was the court’s decision to embrace with no explanation of why they thought a high school standard should apply to colleges. It’s as though this federal court views Kentucky State University as a high school with slightly taller students.

So now we have a decision that grants significantly greater latitude to college administrators in censoring student publications. If you apply the “Who owns the presses?” test, it’s only a matter of time before college administrations — weary of the sometimes irritating voice of students — decide to short-circuit freedom of the press. With this decision, the 6th Circuit has given them a road map to accomplish just that.

The First Amendment was designed to prevent government from controlling expression and thought. In this case, students paid activity fees to fund a publication that reflected their lives and beliefs.

Does the First Amendment really permit this government institution to then simply turn thumbs down on this volume of student expression?

Are we so offended by the color purple that we are willing to sacrifice literally thousands of hours of students’ work in preparing the book?

Of course, the great irony is that Kentucky State University engaged in this virtual book-burning in an effort to protect its image. It did not want this purple yearbook to stand as a symbol of the university.

That aggressive stance suggests a new marketing campaign: “Enroll at Kentucky State University, where we don’t believe in free expression for students, but we have one heck-of-a yearbook.”