Student Press Law Center celebrates 25 years, free-press successes

Friday, October 29, 1999

ARLINGTON, Va. — When Mark Goodman, longtime executive director of the Student Press Law Center, is asked about the most significant cases the organization has been involved in, he selects one where the SPLC weighed in on the side of a religious fundamentalist and another where the group took on the U.S. Department of Education.

It seems fitting as the Student Press Law Center celebrates its 25th birthday this month that Goodman would pick those cases. In one, the SPLC stood virtually alone in support of a conservative Christian who was trying to get access to a New York college’s teaching materials to protest the institution’s approach to sex education. Numerous civil liberties groups had refused to get involved because they did not approve of the views of the individual making the challenge and his reasons for seeking the materials.

‘It doesn’t matter who he is or what he wants the information for,’ Goodman said of the case that ultimately resulted in a ruling opening access to the teaching materials as urged by the SPLC. ‘This is information that journalists and the public should have access to. Sooner or later, we’re all in the minority.’

In the second case, the center challenged a giant federal agency to stop officials from threatening to cut off federal funding to colleges that released campus-crime statistics to the media. Not only did a federal judge agree with the SPLC that the department’s threats of a fund cutoff were unconstitutional, but Congress also followed up with a new law that made sure similar actions would not take place in the future.

‘We’re a tiny organization,’ Goodman, 39, said. ‘We took on the Department of Education in a way that no one else had, and we won.’

Taking on troublesome cases that no one else would touch and bucking the odds have been the stock in trade of the Student Press Law Center for the past quarter-century. Operating with a budget of only $150,000 a year in grant money and donated funds, the SPLC provides legal assistance, counseling and comfort for student journalists and their advisers at both the high school and college level.

In 1985, when Goodman joined the center as its eighth executive director, after his graduation from law school, the SPLC received 380 requests for legal assistance. By 1998, the center was fielding 2,115 legal questions presented by students and advisers. In part, the increase can be attributed to the fact that the SPLC is far more visible now. But also, Goodman said, it is ‘because the problems out there are real and growing.’

The SPLC was founded in October 1974 and for several years functioned in an atmosphere of relative press freedom in high schools and colleges, recalled Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver, associate dean of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Florida International University in North Miami.

But the landscape changed dramatically in January 1988 when a court ruling now known in academic circles simply as HazelwoodHazelwood v. Kuhlmeier — gave public school officials greater authority to censor high school publications.

‘Since Hazelwood, the number of calls for help to the SPLC has grown substantially each year,’ said Kopenhaver, who has been on the center’s advisory board since 1976. ‘This is due in part to increases in censorship, but also to the fact that the SPLC has positioned itself as the major national legal resource for students and their advisers on censorship issues.’

By far the biggest day-to-day work of the center is ‘talking to, advising and consoling the student journalists and advisers from around the country who are facing legal problems,’ Goodman said. For many of them, especially the high school students, there is not much legal protection available. But providing advice on strategies or tactics to use in confrontations, and offering support and a simple assurance that ‘you are not alone,’ can help immeasurably, he said.

‘It’s frustrating and painful to hear what they’re going through, but it’s also satisfying because they’re so appreciative when we help,’ Goodman said.

For college students, ‘we can do more because we have more legal options available,’ he said. But the center is ‘very much concerned’ about an increasing number of Hazelwood-type restrictions being imposed on the collegiate press, as well. That development, SPLC realizes, could change the atmosphere on college campuses just as dramatically in the near future.

Still, the center has notched some impressive legal victories for access and press freedom at the college level over the years, including a case in Missouri in the early 1990s involving a student newspaper’s access to campus crime reports, Bauer v. Kincaid.

‘They (the SPLC) were the reason we got it (the case) to court, and much of the reason we won,’ said Traci Bauer, the student journalist who initiated the action as a reporter and news editor for the Southwest Standard, the student newspaper at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield.

Bauer, who now is business editor of the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader, covered campus crime as her beat. One day she got a tip about a rape that had been reported to campus security officers.

‘I had never seen the report and I wondered why,’ she recalled in a telephone interview. ‘I asked to see it, and campus security said they’d get back to me. That surprised me because normally, they would just turn it over.’

Soon, Bauer discovered that campus security had changed its tune on all crime reports, citing a provision known as the Buckley Amendment, part of the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, to justify denying her the records. The university maintained that the campus-crime reports were ‘education records’ and that federal law under the Buckley Amendment stated that education records could not be made public.

‘All of a sudden they were using this federal law to tell me I couldn’t get crime reports anymore,’ Bauer said. ‘I didn’t know what to do, but I knew about the Student Press Law Center.’

Bauer contacted Goodman, who helped her get in touch with Paul McMasters, an alumnus of Southwest Missouri State and then the chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee. McMasters, now The Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Ombudsman, assured Bauer that SPJ would cover the legal costs; Goodman helped Bauer locate a lawyer to take the case; and she filed suit against the university in federal court.

The ruling handed down in the 8th District in Kansas City, Mo., not only supported Bauer’s assertion that campus-crime reports were not part of a person’s educational record, but the judge even blocked the Department of Education from appealing the ruling. ‘This was the beginning of a gradual opening up of campus-crime records,’ McMasters said. The case is frequently cited in other court decisions.

Bauer credits the SPLC and Goodman for the favorable decision. Goodman testified as an expert witness in the case, she said, and ‘was just a superstar on the stand.’ But more important, she said, she is a big fan of Goodman’s ‘because he was there. He always came to the phone when I needed him.’

‘Being there’ is particularly impressive given that the center operates with only Goodman and another lawyer as professional staff. It is hiring a third person to help run the office; other help comes from law-school interns and other college students who work for experience and very little money, Goodman said.

About 60% of the center’s annual budget comes from foundations and media companies interested in First Amendment education, free-expression issues and citizenship programs for young people. The center also benefits from in-kind contributions, such as free office space from The Freedom Forum. The remaining 40% of the budget comes from donations ‘from the people we serve.’

Goodman said that is the funding he considers most precious because the people who give it are students or teachers who don’t have much money to spare but donate just because they consider the center’s work so important.

So as the SPLC enters its second 25 years, what are the challenges ahead? And is the need for it likely to be greater?

‘The center certainly is responsible for keeping the situation from being worse than it is,’ said McMasters, who also serves on the SPLC advisory board. ‘That said, there is more of a need for its work now than ever, simply because so many school officials, so many parents, and so many courts view students only as sort-of citizens whose First Amendment rights can be suspended at will.’

‘The First Amendment rights of students have never been so threatened, in my opinion,’ he continued, ‘and the Student Press Law Center is at the forefront of organizations trying to protect and promote those rights.’

Kopenhaver agrees.

‘One would only hope that there would be less censorship of the student press in the next 25 years, but with the trends going as they are now, I see the need for the SPLC to add attorneys and legal assistants and also be prepared to deal with the newer challenges of the new media outlets, whatever they may be, as we look ahead,’ she said.