Media critics condemn censorship of student productions
the USU Communication Department
The president of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Lillian Lodge Kopenhaver of Florida International University, said Wednesday that the 6th U.S. Circuit Court ruling represents "a dangerous precedent that threatens the First Amendment rights of university and college student journalists and writers nationwide."
Kopenhaver, who heads an organization of some 3,300 journalism professors at more than 350 college and universities, warned that the Sept. 8 ruling in the Kincaid v. Gibson case, upholding the censorship and confiscation of the KSU yearbook, could roll back more than 30 years of court protection for free expression in the student press. Kopenhaver predicted an appeal of the Kincaid decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The decision, handed down in Cincinnati last week, upheld a 1997 federal district court ruling that said officials at Kentucky State University were justified in blocking distribution of 2,000 copies of the 1994 issue of The Thorobred, the student-produced yearbook. The student plaintiffs said that in confiscating the yearbook, university officials violated their First Amendment rights. But KSU officials said they blocked the yearbook's distribution because of "poor quality" and because the cover color (purple) did not match the university's official colors.
Last week's appeals court decision affirms the lower court judgment that a yearbook is not strictly a "public forum" for free expression by students, and that the university was warranted in wanting to protect its public image from distribution of a product of "indisputedly poor quality."
But AEJMC and other journalism groups argue that the central issue is not the yearbook's "quality," but the dire implications of last week's ruling on freedom of expression on college campuses, especially in the region of the federal 6th Circuit. Journalism schools across that region - Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee - filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the KSU case last year, asking that the KSU censorship decision be overturned. Other amicus briefs were filed by AEJMC and various civil rights and professional journalists groups.
Legal analysts fear that it is a short step from censorship of yearbooks to other student expression on U.S. campuses, including student newspapers, radio and TV stations, and other student speech.
"The most basic premise of freedom in this country is that every citizen has a right to free expression," said Pamela Creedon, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State University in Ohio, and chair of AEJMC's professional freedom and responsibility committee. "What this decision says is that student journalists may not enjoy the constitutional rights of other citizens."
Todd F. Simon, a legal scholar and director of the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism & Mass Communications at Kansas State University, said the decision may have unintended negative consequences, rippling through other areas of student expression on U.S. campuses.
"The three-judge panel just doesn't seem to understand how the First Amendment is supposed to work," Simon said. "The opinion could also lead to college administrators second-guessing student speaker programs, film programs, and music. Have they really thought this through?"
Ted Pease, a media critic who chairs the department of communication at Utah State University, says that if the ruling survives an almost certain appeal to the Supreme Court, it will rob students of their constitutional rights of free expression.
"College campuses are supposed to be places where free thought and exploration of ideas are not only permitted but actively cultivated," Pease said. "This decision assumes that university administrators know what's best and right for students to think, say and write. As I remember my American history, this country fought the Revolutionary War over that very point."
AEJMC observers point out that the deeper threat embedded in the Kincaid decision is to other student press freedoms, such as to student newspapers. Laura Cullen, who was adviser to both the yearbook and the student newspaper, The Thorobred News, was removed as adviser after being directed by the administration to run more positive news about KSU. Although Cullen was later reinstated, it was with what Simon and other legal scholars see as an order from the administration that amounts to prior restraint on the content of the student paper.
"The legal result is that it's OK to badger the adviser, fire the adviser, reassign the adviser, and then to write a contract demanding that the institution rather than students have a right to make content decisions," Simon said. "It doesn't get any worse than this."
AEJMC President Kopenhaver agreed. "This decision threatens to have a terrible chilling effect on student journalism and journalism education," she said. "It offers university officials a license to curb any kind of expression on campuses that they think may not reflect well on the institution. That flies in the face of the concept of colleges and universities as places to nurture and encourage free thought, free expression, and the open and unrestrained exchange of ideas."
In 1969, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Tinker v. Des Moines that student journalists were entitled to the same First Amendment protections as adults, but recent court decisions have whittled away at that 30-year standard.
AEJMC was founded in 1912 as an association of college and university
teachers, researchers and scholars in journalism and mass communication.
ASJMC, its sister organization, represents schools and departments
of journalism and mass communication nationwide. Together, the two
associations are members of the Accrediting Council on Education in
Journalism and Mass Communication (ACEJMC), the primary accrediting
agency in the field. AEJMC/ASJMC's headquarters are in Columbia, SC.
Archived Months:September 1998