Full appeals court to hear Kentucky yearbook case

Wednesday, December 1, 1999

The full 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed to hear a key college censorship case, renewing hope among press advocates that the court might strike down previous decisions that upheld Kentucky State University's confiscation of the school yearbook five years ago.

Three months ago, a three-judge panel ruled in Kincaid v. Gibson that university officials were justified in blocking the distribution of more than 2,000 copies of the 1992-94 edition of the student yearbook The Thorobred. KSU administrators said they confiscated the yearbook because it didn't sport the school's official colors and was of poor quality. They plan to destroy the books.

The panel also threw out claims that officials acted improperly when it transferred a student newspaper adviser to a secretarial position.

The 6th Circuit's vote on Nov. 29 to hear arguments in Kincaid came in response to student plaintiffs' request that the full court consider the panel's ruling. The full 13-judge panel will hear the case, although no date has been set for oral arguments.

The full court's decision to hear the case met with approval from student press advocates who had denounced the panel's ruling because they said it relied solely on a high school censorship case. In a landmark decision in the 1988 case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that school officials may censor school-sponsored publications only if they have legitimate educational reasons for doing so.

But Kincaid, student press advocates said, marked the first time that federal appellate judges had used the Hazelwood standard at the collegiate level.

“We're wiping the slate clean and starting afresh there,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “With a different group and a larger group of judges, we definitely have the potential of a different outcome.”

Kentucky State officials have praised the Sept. 8 ruling because it recognized that the publications were under the university's control. “Kentucky State University is still committed to the importance of student newspapers as a journalistic expression and a learning opportunity,” officials said in a statement. “We believe that yearbooks are by their nature a commemorative journal and does not present the same public forum for expression as do newspapers.”

Goodman said: “With all of the problems colleges and universities are facing today, the last thing they need to be doing is curtailing student free expression. And I hope this court will realize that's not something it's willing to lend its support to.”