Kentucky university students vow to fight censorship ruling

Thursday, March 12, 1998

An attorney for a former yearbook editor at Kentucky State University declared that the fight is on for college press freedom after a federal judge last week declined to reverse his decision that the college press is subject to the same restrictions as the high school press.

Last Thursday, Judge Joseph Hood reiterated his November ruling that Kentucky State University officials could control the content and distribution of the school yearbook and newspaper.

“Get it out on the tom-tom,” said Bruce Orwin, representing the two students who filed the lawsuit against the school. “It's a very bad decision.”

The case, Kincaid v. Gibson, began after school officials stopped the distribution of the yearbook, The Thorobred, and stopped the newspaper, The Thorobred News, from publishing editorials and comic strips critical of school officials.

Charles Kincaid, a KSU student, and Capri Coffer, a former yearbook editor and newspaper staff writer, sued the university in federal court. They claim the ban of the 1992-1994 yearbook, which has never been distributed, and the control of the newspaper violated their First Amendment rights.

But Hood ruled against the students saying Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision on high school press censorship, also applies to college students.

In Hazelwood, the court ruled that high school officials can censor expression in student publications as long as they have a legitimate educational reason to do so.

Attorneys for the students asked Hood to alter or vacate his earlier ruling on grounds that he misapplied the Hazelwood decision to this case.

“The fact that it took so long made some people think he was reconsidering his decision,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

But Hood declined, saying in his decision that the attorneys failed to make their case that Hazelwood doesn't work at the collegiate level.

“The plaintiffs have not pointed out, or cited, any more persuasive authority than they originally did.… The court finds Hazelwood to be the starting point in an analysis of whether a publication is a public forum, regardless of the fact that Hazelwood purely dealt with a high school publication,” Hood wrote.

Orwin said that he plans to file an appeal with the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals by the end of the week.

Goodman said that he thinks the students will see an incredible outpouring of support from education, civil-liberties and press groups over the next few weeks.

“Now that people know this case is going to an appellate level, I think the support is really going to come out,” he said.