Supreme court declines to hear college newspaper censorship case

Home Archived News Supreme court declines to hear college newspaper censorship case

Erika Wilhite

Published: February 22, 2006

On Feb. 21, 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in the case of Hosty v. Carter, which questions the authority of a college or university’s administrators to censor any form of student speech, such as a newspaper, publishing articles critical of the school or its administrators. The Court’s refusal is a tacit acceptance of the June 2005 ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The Court’s decision is very bad news for those who value a free student press,” said Thom Botsford, former professor of English and journalism, now head of PJC’s English and Communications Department.

Hosty v. Carter began in 2001 when student journalists Margaret Hosty, Jeni Porche and Stephen Barba sued Governors State University, in Illinois, after Dean Patricia Carter told the printer of the school newspaper, the Innovator, to hold all future issues pending approval of their contents by a school official. Carter’s actions were in response to stories and editorials printed in criticism of the university’s administration.

In 2003, a three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a ruling defending the freedom of college press, but the Attorney General of Illinois petitioned on behalf of Carter for a rehearing before the entire court of appeals. The court handed down a June 2005 decision in Carter’s favor, providing the authority for administrators to censor school-sponsored speech – both student and faculty – in Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana.

However, the ruling does not provide for censorship of all media in all cases. If, for example, a school’s administration recognizes the student media (by policy or practice, and not necessarily in a formal manner) as “designated public forums” and allows the student editors to determine that media’s content independently, then the 7th Circuit holds that “no censorship [is] allowed” in such an instance.

The appeals court majority declared that their ruling was based off of the 1988 case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, where the Supreme Court ruled that high schools had the authority to censor most school-sponsored student newspapers and other forms of student expression. In addition to censoring libelous or obscene speech, high school officials could censor an article if the principal found it to be “poorly written,” “ungrammatical,” “biased” or speech that “might reasonably be perceived to advocate drug or alcohol use, irresponsible sex, or conduct otherwise inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order.”

“The appeals court decision last year turned on its head the traditional belief that a university is a ‘marketplace of ideas’ where speech from all sides is not only tolerated, but encouraged. We hoped that the Supreme Court would step in to reaffirm that important principle,” Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said in a press release. “We are very disappointed that the Court left that issue to be decided another day.”

The court’s ruling only applies in the three states of the 7th Circuit. The strong First Amendment protection afforded the college student press by courts in the rest of the country remains unchanged, Goodman says.

Leave a Reply