University newspaper staffs are reeling from a recent federal appellate court ruling upholding administrators’ right to review campus papers with the same authority that the U.S. Supreme Court gave high school principals. The ruling could set up a battle over campus press freedom.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ decision last week in Hosty v. Carter applies only to those Great Lakes states over which the court has jurisdiction. But it could foreshadow a U.S. Supreme Court ruling upholding it.
That could give Arizona’s state universities new power to control the content of their student newspapers. You may recall that at Arizona State University last year, administrators howled over strong sexual content in the State Press. We subsequently called this spring for newspapers at all state university campuses to be allowed to become independent, that they may exercise First Amendment rights unencumbered by government.
Student editors at Governors State University in Illinois — who sued in 2001 when administrators demanded the right to review The Innovator’s content — may appeal the 7th Circuit’s decision to the Supreme Court. If the justices decide to hear the appeal, they may rule that any state college or university newspaper that gets even a small amount of funding from state sources can face prior review and censorship.
Last fall, ASU President Michael Crow and subordinate administrators contemplated denying funding to the State Press because its weekly entertainment-magazine section’s cover-story about body piercing featured a bare female breast whose nipple was pierced. Crow and his associates, as well as offended state legislators, ultimately backed down. Current court decisions protect public-university student newspapers from denial of funding or prior review. But a new Supreme Court ruling could strip such newspapers of judicial cover.
Only about 10 percent of the State Press’ budget is from state auspices. A private non-profit foundation could be set up to make up that amount as the newspaper makes the transition to off-campus status, though it would still be allowed to distribute on campus.
This should begin sooner rather than later. The federal judiciary may not wait long to act.