First Amendment outrage of the week

Thursday, March 23, 2000

Periodically, identifies a “First Amendment Outrage of the Week,” recognizing the single act or gesture most offensive to the spirit of free speech, free press and free expression.

Original stories
  • Morgan State officials stop presses on student newspaper

  • Prior restrainers, restrain yourselves


    As a state institution, Morgan State University in Maryland must respect the First Amendment prohibition against “abridging the freedom … of the press.” But last week some college officials went ahead and ignored the First Amendment out of a misapplied concern for student government elections.

    According to Vivian Ryan, coordinator of student activities, the official view at Morgan State is that the campus newspaper, the Spokesman, is not supposed to endorse student candidates. So, acting on a student’s suspicion that the Spokesman was about to commit this deep sin against the refined sensibilities of campus politics, university officials actually got the printers to shut the presses down just as they were about to roll off 3,000 copies.

    Surprise — the Spokesman had decided not to endorse a candidate for student government president, finding neither deserving of the honor. What they were about to print was basic candidate information about the candidates and their views.

    But what was to have been printed shouldn’t matter — the Spokesman is a newspaper at a public university, and thus has the right to publish endorsements, non-endorsements, and anything else it wishes, with stringently limited exceptions — without prior restraint.

    “Prior restraint” is fighting words to First Amendment advocates. Prior restraint is what kings and princes of old did — and some new-fashioned potentates of today sometimes try to do — to the press: License, monitor, control it in advance so that nothing could be published without official approval. The enlightened free-press philosophy that we have under the First Amendment is that if a libel is published, legal action can be taken. But in this society we don’t let self-appointed censors run around deciding in advance what can and can’t be printed.

    At Morgan State, this press-stopping prior restraint was done in the name of preventing some supposed potential disruption of the elections. Disruption? Information, partisan or nonpartisan, can’t disrupt anything. Information is what is needed for elections to work at all. The more information the better, and let the students make up their own minds.

    In this case, to try to salvage something out of this mess, Spokesman staff taped printouts of their news stories up on a campus poster board. Fortunately, what the campus administration doesn’t grasp, some students clearly do. Said Angel Lennon, a Baltimore junior who stopped to read the printouts:

    “We are the student body, this is the student newspaper, we should be allowed to read what is in it.”