Scrutiny for the Student Press?

January 26, 2007

From the moment in 2005 that a federal appeals court applied to a public university a 1988 Supreme Court decision that allowed censorship of high school student newspapers, press freedom advocates have anticipated -- or at least feared -- a crackdown on campus journalists. Flareups have been few and far between since then, but a move by administrators at Grambling State University -- which was quickly reversed -- has renewed their concerns.

Administrators at the Louisiana public university directed editors of the weekly student newspaper, the Gramblinite, to suspend publication this month, citing a range of reasons. Grambling officials said that the newspaper was rife with errors and misspellings and that advertisers and local groups had complained about its lack of professionalism, and they cited a sports article that was plagiarized in large part from a local newspaper.

In a January 17 memorandum to the newspaper's faculty adviser, Wanda Peters, university administrators said that the newspaper should suspend publication through January, so that Grambling officials could be assured that the student editors will "clean up their act," Ralph Wilson, director of media relations and special services at Grambling, said Thursday. "We've asked them to present a detailed and comprehensive plan on how they're going to straighten out those kinds of things." Students submitted such a plan late Thursday.

The newspaper's editor in chief, Darryl D. Smith, said the students welcomed any help the administration wanted to provide in helping them make fewer errors. But Smith said that while administrators had raised issues of accuracy and plagiarism, they had also made comments complaining about articles that have criticized the university.

"After having met with them twice, no matter how much they say it's not about content, it is about content," Smith said in an interview Thursday. "They keep saying there's nothing but negative articles in the Gramblinite, but that makes it clear they do not read it. If you were to sit down and count the positive and negative, at least 85 percent of the time, the positive outweighs the negative."

Smith also said that Grambling administrators had cited the June 2005 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit in the case known as Hosty v. Carter as a justification for their right to suspend publication of the Gramblinite. "Yes, that idea has been conveyed to the students," said Wilson, the media relations director. "The university has that right in that the publication is supported by the institution," both through use of its equipment and because it has a separate account in the university's budget.  

But Smith noted that the student newspaper is supported not with university funds but with a $4-per-semester charge for the Gramblinite that undergraduates pay as part of their overall student fees. More importantly, he said, Grambling officials can't cite the Hosty case as a reason for their own actions because the decision, which came in a case involving Governors State University, in Illinois, applies only there and in Indiana and Wisconsin, the other states in the Seventh Circuit.

The day after Grambling officials sent the memo asking that the Gramblinite temporarily cease publication last week, the newspaper published its latest weekly edition, much to the dismay of university officials. Smith said mid-day Thursday that the students had decided not to publish an issue so far this week, fearing that the university might punish their advisers if they did so.

But late Thursday, administrators reportedly lifted their suspension of the publication, after reaching an agreement with the students that will require the newspaper's adviser to edit each article for grammar and stylebefore it appears.

Despite the reversal, the suspension at Grambling troubled Mike Hiestand, a legal consultant to the Student Press Law Center, which has publicized the situation at Grambling. He describes it as one of several "significant isolated incidents" in which colleges and universities have considered leaning on the Hosty decision to exert more control over student publications. One of those was a 2005 memo in which lawyers for the California State University System suggested that the appeals court decision gave them added authority over student publications, which prompted action by the state Legislature to extend First Amendment protections to college journalists.

Similarly, Hiestand said, a committee in the Washington State House of Representatives will meet today to consider a bill in response to suggestions by administrators at a community college there that they, too, have "more control over student publications," according to Hiestand.

Taken together, he said, the incidents in California, Louisiana and Washington may suggest that "after a little bit of a honeymoon period, we may be starting to see" fallout from the Hosty decision.

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