Don’t stop the presses: respecting the rights of campus newspapers

Sunday, November 3, 2002

The administrators at Governors State University must have watched one too many old newspaper movies.

“Stop the presses” was a shout by crusty old newspaper editors when big news broke. It wasn’t intended as a rallying cry for college administrators eager to cut off student expression.

Next month, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is to hear arguments in a case with the potential to undercut First Amendment freedoms on college campuses.

The case arose in the fall of 2000 when a dean at Governors State in University Park, Ill., called a printing firm and told it not to publish any issues of The Innovator student newspaper without prior approval by the university administration. The call came after the newspaper had stung several professors with pointed criticism. The printer alerted the student editors to the call but did not print the newspaper, apparently concerned about being paid. The Innovator has gone unpublished since that date.

Jeni Porche, Innovator editor in chief, and Margaret Hosty, managing editor, filed suit against the university on a number of counts. The key issue, now before the appeals court, is whether a public university can restrain the publication of a student newspaper. While the suit filed by Porche and Hosty has attracted supporting legal briefs by virtually all the nation’s press associations and the state’s most respected journalism schools, there has been criticism of the students’ lawsuit from some surprising quarters.

Shortly after the university’s action, Rockford Register Star columnist Pat Cunningham wrote that the students needed to learn that “college is supposed to be a place that prepares the kids to face the real world.”

“Freedom of the press belongs to the person who owns one. The company that owns the Rockford Register Star designates certain people to decide what gets published in the paper and what doesn’t. I don’t have the right to rescind the dictates of those people,” Cunningham wrote. “That’s the way the First Amendment works.”

In fact, that’s not the way the First Amendment works. That’s how private businesses work. The First Amendment specifically prohibits government bodies, including public universities, from censoring viewpoints or limiting opinions.

Government may or may not decide to fund a public museum, but it is not allowed to take art off the walls when it does so. A city may or may not decide to build a municipal park, but it cannot ban a public rally in the park once it does so. A university may or may not fund a student newspaper, but it cannot limit its content or bar its publication once it does so.

I’m always astonished by people who use private-business models to justify incursions on freedom of expression. In truth, private workplaces — where employees essentially work under contract — bear no resemblance to the land of liberty. If you think otherwise, try passing out a petition criticizing senior management and marching on the boss’s office at the close of the workday. The difference between the private and public sectors immediately will become apparent.

Governors State University engaged in prior restraint of The Innovator when it told the printer not to publish the newspaper. Courts have repeatedly found that college students — as opposed to teen-age journalists in high schools — have full First Amendment protection, regardless of the source of their funding.

A brief filed on behalf of the student journalists by the Student Press Law Center quotes a 30-year-old decision from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that’s right on target: “Once a university recognizes a student activity that has elements of free expression, it can act to censor that expression only if it acts consistent with First Amendment constitutional guarantees.”

A phone call from a university administrator to stop the presses until further notice is not consistent with the First Amendment.

College journalists have a mission similar to their professional counterparts, including serving as watchdogs on campus officials who would just as soon pull the plug on criticism.

While by most accounts The Innovator displayed some journalistic flaws — including grammatical errors and ethical lapses, such as having a student write about her own professor — these shortcomings are true of many campus publications.

By their very nature, student newspapers irk the people who run universities. But most college administrators have enough respect for both the First Amendment and their own institution’s reputation that they choose not to meddle. Governors State University has failed on both counts.

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