Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Freedom of press on campuses at stake

Before the end of this year, college newspapers in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin may “have no stronger free-expression protection than teenagers in high school,” according to the Student Press Law Center.

A high-stakes case before the 7th U.S. Court of Appeals pits student journalists of Governors State University in Illinois against university administrators in a battle over censorship, freedom of speech and freedom of the press that has implications for college presses in all three states under the court’s jurisdiction.

To date, 25 media groups, university journalism schools and civil-rights groups have joined the ranks of a coalition to aid the students by drafting an amicus curiae, or “friend of the court” brief. The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire’s journalism department is one such party.


“We’ve been watching the unfolding of the discussion and debate surrounding this issue,” said Karen Kremer, chair of Eau Claire’s communications and journalism department.

Kremer explained her department’s involvement as the result of grave concern for freedom of the press felt by her predecessor, Dr. David Gordon.

At the heart of the controversy lies the fact that Governors State’s student publication, Innovator, has not been published since October 2000. Why it has not been printed is a disputed fact. Former student editors Jeni Porshe and Margaret Hosty, along with former staff reporter Steven Baron, claim they were blocked unfairly in their attempt to transform a weak paper into a vital forum.

The trio’s sharp criticisms of the administration’s laxity and teachers’ sub-par classroom performance were denounced by Patricia Carter, dean of student affairs, as not “fair and ethical,” according to a U-Wire report.

Likewise, university president Stuart Fagan openly called the students and their reporting one-sided, labeling their journalistic content “an angry barrage of unsubstantiated allegations that essentially and unfairly excoriated members of the university faculty and administration.”

The students involved claim the administration actively subverted their ability to work on the paper; they received no new keys when news building locks were changed, campus security had to accompany them while entering or exiting the building and the administration supposedly checked the Innovator e-mail account repeatedly, even deleting several messages.

In January 2001, Hosty, Porshe and Baron brought suit against the university, the Illinois Board of Regents and the dean when the paper was not being published. Later that year, a lower court ruled the suit could only be brought against Dean Carter.

Carter, the plaintiffs claimed, quashed the paper after objecting to its content and telling the paper’s printer, Charles Richard, to halt printing on any issue until an administrator had reviewed it for content. According to the defendant’s brief filed by Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan, currently running for governor as a Republican, Richard “expressed concerns about violating the First Amendment” when asked by Carter to call before printing any further issues.

Attorney General Ryan, in the brief, argues that the plaintiffs have no case, because they made the choice not to send the paper to the printer after the controversy arose, thinking it would not be printed.

“The dean said, ‘I want to see this,’ and the students said, ‘We aren’t going to write anything,'” said Joel Bertocchi of the Illinois attorney general’s office in an AP report. Accordingly, it can be argued that censorship never occurred.

Additionally, it is Ryan’s hope the 1988 Supreme Court case of Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier, which established the right of administrative censorship in a high school setting, will be applied to college presses. While the 7th Circuit Court has never mulled the issue, federal appeals courts in Cincinnati and Boston have determined that, indeed, Hazelwood cannot be stretched to include university presses, according to an AP report.

“The court has treated colleges and universities differently from lower-level schools because the ‘inculcation of community values’ is considered a proper part of primary and secondary education,” UW law professor Donald Downs said. “But the primary purpose of a university or college is to pursue the truth, which requires wide-open free speech that does not otherwise cross a First Amendment line — obscenity, direct incitement to unlawful action, libel, etc.”

Downs also noted, as the student journalists in the case did, that university laws may have been broken in the administration’s actions.

“There might be a contract violation if the school’s public statements protect free speech and public discourse. Students come there expecting to be able to say controversial things, because that is what the school’s brochures or catalogues say,” Downs said.

According to the Student Press Law Center, this is exactly the case. A university policy purportedly states the student body “will determine content and format of their respective publications without censorship or advance approval.”

Carter, though, claims her actions were justified, saying she merely sought to review journalistic integrity in the way of spelling and grammatical errors.

Thus far, the 7th Circuit has not set a date for the momentous case to be heard. Journalists, free-speech defenders and legal analysts, as seen in their participation in the coalition of support for the students, anticipate a ruling that does not extend the high school-style limitations of Hazelwood to college presses.

“Public colleges and universities are places for robust free speech,” explained Downs.

“Governments may attach certain conditions to how money that they grant is spent, but such conditions may be predicated upon the recipients not being able to exercise constitutional rights. I doubt very much that the college here could say, ‘Here is some money, but you cannot offend anyone.'”

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