Key Win for Student Press

September 13, 2010

A federal judge last week ruled that state laws can restore to the college press much of the First Amendment protection that a 2005 appeals court ruling appeared to limit. The new ruling appears to validate the strategy of advocates for the student press, who turned to state legislatures to minimize the damage they feared from the 2005 decision.

Last week's ruling came in a suit by the former faculty adviser and the former student editor of Tempo, the student newspaper at Chicago State University. They charge that the university fired the adviser and interfered with the legitimate work of the editor because of the administration's anger over critical articles published in Tempo. The university has maintained that it did nothing wrong and that the adviser was dismissed for other reasons. But the record in the case makes clear that the university's administrators were angry about what the newspaper was publishing and wanted to review articles prior to publication -- and that the student journalists, with their adviser's backing, resisted.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer did not resolve the case -- she rejected requests from both sides for summary judgment in their favor and instead found that there were points of fact that need to be resolved in a trial. But her ruling stated clearly that a law enacted in Illinois in the wake of the 2005 appeals court ruling clearly was relevant to the case and gave additional First Amendment protections to student journalists. And that was the finding that advocates for the student press have wanted.

Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, called the ruling "a really thorough and careful analysis" and said that it showed that the Illinois law to protect student journalists "has real teeth."

The appeals court ruling that sparked the concern about First Amendment rights for student journalists was called Hosty v. Carter, and was decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. In a case involving the student newspaper at Governors State University, the appeals court rejected a lower court ruling and many other rulings that have suggested that college journalists have far more First Amendment protection than do high school journalists. Rather, the appeals court found, public colleges and universities have many of the rights of public high schools to regulate the student press. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in the case, and that led advocates for student journalism to seek protection from state legislature.

In Illinois, the College Campus Press Act became law in 2008, stating that "campus media produced primarily by students at a state-sponsored institution of higher learning is a public forum for expression by the student journalists and editors at the particular institution." Specifically, that designation is supposed to bar demands by public colleges -- even if they provide financial support to the publications -- for pre-publication review.

While Judge Pallmeyer noted the Hosty decision, she said that the Illinois law's protections were the controlling factor to consider.

"In light of the Hosty decision, the Illinois legislature’s intent to designate student publications as public forums that are free from censorship is particularly clear. As the majority in Hosty itself observed, 'public officials may not censor speech in a designated public forum,'" she wrote. "In short, by adopting the Illinois College Campus Press Act, the state voluntarily ceded any ability it may have had to control the content of a student publication such as Tempo. As a result, the First Amendment prohibits university officials from taking any adverse action against Tempo or its staff, including engaging in conduct designed to chill the speech contained in future editions, on the basis of the views expressed in the publication unless such action served a compelling government interest."

Chicago State officials did not respond to a request for comment on the decision.

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