Panelists say Kentucky yearbook case represents grave threat to college journalists

Monday, April 10, 2000

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The case of Kincaid v. Gibson represents a grave threat to college students’ press freedoms, said several panelists at the Society of Professional Journalists’ program “How Free Are Student Media? How Free Should They Be?”

Held at the First Amendment Center, the April 7 program featured a discussion of Kincaid. In that decision, a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last September that Kentucky State University officials did not violate the First Amendment by confiscating the 1992-94 school yearbook.

“In 1988 the U.S. Supreme Court limited the First Amendment rights of high school journalists in the Hazelwood case,” said panelist Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center. “For a while press advocates were afraid that this ruling would be extended to the college press. But after a decade, we thought it was not going to happen. Then, along came the Kincaid decision.

“It was as if the three-judge panel determined that college students are just like high school students but just a little bit taller,” Paulson said. “It was a horrible and horrifying decision. It is the single most dangerous threat to college press freedom and would rewrite history for student journalists.”

Many press advocates had assumed that the lower standard of press freedoms for high school journalists established in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier would not be extended to the college press.

However, a federal district court in November 1997 and then the 6th Circuit extended Hazelwood to the college press. The 6th Circuit failed to explain why the high school case should apply to college journalists, writing only that “[t]he framework established in Hazelwood applies to plaintiffs’ claims in the instant action.”

“It is no doubt reasonable that KSU should seek to maintain its image to potential students, alumni and the general public,” the appeals panel wrote.

The full 13-judge panel of the 6th Circuit agreed last November to rehear the panel decision.

Panelist John Seigenthaler, the First Amendment Center’s founder, described the history of student press freedoms as “a grim picture with some bright spots, even some brilliant spots, but nevertheless a picture with too many dark moments.”

Seigenthaler explained that in 1969 the U.S. Supreme Court ensured that the First Amendment protects public high school students in Tinker v. Des Moines Indep. Community School Dist. In that decision the high court ruled that students do not lose their constitutional rights at the “schoolhouse gate.”

He then described how nearly 20 years later the high court in Hazelwood silenced high school journalists.

“For too long now, student journalists have been silenced as captive voices,” Seigenthaler said.

“I definitely felt like a captive voice when I was a high school journalist,” said panelist Christine Kirk, managing editor of the student paper at Fisk University.

“Student journalists should be free to write without interference by school officials at both the high school and college level,” Kirk said.

Panelist Chris Carroll, president of College Media Advisers and director of Vanderbilt Student Communications agreed, identifying himself as a First Amendment absolutist. “We should ensure that both high school and college journalists are free because student media positions serve as an important training ground for journalists and also because student journalists contribute to the marketplace of ideas.”

When asked by moderator Bob Wyatt, journalism professor at Middle Tennessee State University, how much freedom high school journalists should have, Seigenthaler answered by giving the example of a 16-year-old dropout who took over as newspaper publisher after his brother was jailed for criticizing city officials. “That 16-year-old dropout was Benjamin Franklin,” Seigenthaler said.

“Young people then and now … know as much if not more about freedom than adults,” he said.

Both Paulson and Seigenthaler said they were disappointed with the lack of support student journalists received from their professional counterparts when the Hazelwood and Kincaid decisions were released.

“It is a great hypocrisy of the American news media,” Paulson said.

Paulson, Seigenthaler and Carroll all expressed hope that the full 6th Circuit would reverse the panel decision.