Ethics Corner: Student Press Law Center Is Pressing the Issue When It Comes to Students’ First Amendment Rights

By: Allan Wolper

Ethics Corner: Student Press Law Center Is Pressing the Issue When It Comes to Students’ First Amendment Rights

The Student Press Law Center, a free-speech champion for the scholastic and campus press, is searching for a student journalist to sue a state university for allegedly violating the First Amendment.

The target of the lawsuit would be a state college or university that pays a journalism adviser or professor to oversee a school publication. The SPLC claims that kind of financing presents serious ethical problems.

“You shouldn’t have an organization that covers an entity that signs its checks,” Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the SPLC, said in a telephone interview. “It’s a situation that no real newspaper would ever cotenant.” In other words, it would be like having the White House pay for the reporting of The Washington Post.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC, said he believes that newly aggressive academic overseers have been empowered by a series of federal District Court decisions that has already given 20 states censorship powers over publicly funded campus newspapers.

Those federal court rulings are rewriting a 1988 U.S. Supreme Court Decision (Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier) that allowed public high schools to censor student work they felt would disrupt school activities.

However, in an important footnote to that decision, the Supreme Court specifically excluded public colleges and universities from the censorship stamp. But college administrators never stopped trying to win censorship rights over campus publications.

The Supreme Court’s Hazelwood ruling found that Robert Reynolds, principal of Hazelwood East High School, in St. Louis County, Mo., had not violated the First Amendment rights of the journalism students when he killed two stories at The Spectrum, the school paper, one on divorce and another on teen pregnancy.

The student journalists at the paper sued and won a Court of Appeals decision in Missouri that was overturned by the Supreme Court.

The SPLC is hoping that history will repeat itself and the Appeals Court in Missouri that ruled in favor of the high school students will hand down a second decision supporting the First Amendment rights for college and university publications, and perhaps persuade the Supreme Court to do so as well.

Meanwhile, the higher education censors are going to work.

“Although that case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, involved a Missouri high school, the legal standard it created increasingly is being applied to students in college, and even graduate school,” LoMonte wrote in the February issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, a weekly newspaper that monitors political academic life on college and university campuses. “Hazelwood has devastated high school journalism programs — one First Amendment law professor has described it as a ‘censorship tsunami’ — and driven many of the best educators from the field.”

LoMonte told me of a recent visit he made to a state school in Georgia as an example of what he sees increasingly happening on college campuses. “The admissions officials took the campus papers off the table of a glee club, because there were some negative stories in them and they didn’t want incoming freshmen to read them,” he said.

The federal court decisions have been greeted with “so what” shrugs by the journalism community. They’d better wake up and read some of those court decisions, or they’ll be chanting about First Amendment fires breaking out in their classrooms.

Goldstein said he realizes it is going to take some doing to convince a student journalist — the person with the best chance of winning a lawsuit — to take on his or her university. “It won’t be easy,” Goldstein admitted. “But I’m hoping I can find someone willing to do it.”

He even has a school in his legal gunsights: the University of Missouri. This reprises a dispute the SPLC had with the school last year, when Goldstein complained the university had violated First Amendment rights of students on The Missourian, the campus paper run by faculty, by forbidding those students from simultaneously working for J-School Buzz, an independent, student-run blog. That policy has since been changed.

And the Columbia Daily Tribune, the privately funded daily based in Columbia, Mo., has long complained that its university-funded campus competitor has an unfair competitive advantage, because it is funded by the state.

That might provide ammunition to state legislators looking for an excuse to pass a law that would emasculate the First Amendment rights of the Missourian.

“They have a state subsidy, which is not fair,” said Daily Tribune managing editor Jim Robertson. “But we are still the dominant paper in the area as far as covering news.”

Robertson, a 1971 graduate of Missouri, says the college paper seems to have an ethical problem in theory, but not in practice. “The paper does not pull its punches when it covers the university,” he said.

Tom Warhover, the professor who edits the Missourian, said the university gave him tenure when the was hired 11 years ago from The Virginian-Pilot so he wouldn’t have to worry about losing his job or having the paper censored.

“In all my time here, I have never felt pressure from the administration in any way that any other editor might feel taking heat from a story somewhere else,” Warhover said. “And if any future administration tried to censor us, the school of journalism would rise up and fight it. The school of journalism is pretty important to this university.”

But the fact that the school pays its professors and as many as 30 of its students makes them a prime censorship target for the Missouri Legislature, a fact that neither Warhover nor Robertson had given much thought until Goldstein started making waves. “That would be a disaster,” Robertson said. “But I can see that happening in the Missouri Legislature.”

The irony here is that for the first time in at least a generation there is a movement to hire professional journalists rather than Phd graduates as visiting professors at state institutions.

On the face of it, that is a good idea. Journalism schools need help from the shrinking pool of professional journalists being downsized by the centralization of news conglomerates.

But those appointments must come with caveats that will keep universities from utilizing their censorship instincts on those new hires. Otherwise, the federal courts will continue to chop away at the First Amendment rights of college student journalists, and by extension, the people they write about.

The consequences of that would be awful.

Allan Wolper is a professor of journalism at Rutgers-Newark University and host/producer of “Conversations with Allan Wolper,” a broadcast on WBGO 88.3, an NPR affiliate in the New York area.

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One thought on “Ethics Corner: Student Press Law Center Is Pressing the Issue When It Comes to Students’ First Amendment Rights

  • July 18, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    So, journalism students should have the freedom to print/broadcast whatever they want, without oversight? Then chemistry students should be able to mix any chemicals they want and medical students should be free to experiment on patients without someone watching what they’re doing? Freedom of the press and freedom of speech mean free from control by the government, not free from control by managers, editors, publishers, owners whose bank accounts and jobs are on the line. Your freedom to do anything does not give you the right to involve a third party who can be harmed by your actions.


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