Student journalists at south suburban Governors State University won a federal Appeals Court ruling Thursday in a 1st Amendment case that was closely watched on college campuses nationwide.
A three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an argument that college administrators have the same power as high school officials to censor school-sponsored newspapers.
The decision paves the way for three Governors State students to pursue their lawsuit against former Dean of Student Affairs Patricia Carter, charging that she violated their freedom of speech rights. In October 2000, Carter ordered that the student newspaper, the Innovator, could no longer be published without an administrator's prior approval.
"Attempts by school officials, like Dean Carter here, to censor or control constitutionally protected expression in student-edited media have consistently been viewed as suspect under the 1st Amendment," wrote Judge Terence Evans on behalf of the panel.
Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, called the ruling significant for college journalism.
"The college press has for decades been out there, kind of edgy, always stirring up things, always out there trying to raise some trouble," Dalglish said. "This will further empower college journalists to get out there and do groundbreaking journalism."
The appeals court Thursday rejected Carter's contention that she was immune from the lawsuit and sent the case back to U.S. District Judge Suzanne Conlon. In November 2001, Conlon dismissed the students' suit against the Governors State board of trustees and several other administrators, but not against Carter, who appealed.
Illinois Assistant Atty. Gen. Mary Welsh, who represented Carter, cited the U.S. Supreme Court's 1988 decision involving the Hazelwood, Mo., School District in the dean's defense. In that ruling, the justices found that high school administrators have broad powers to censor student newspapers.
The appeals court rejected this argument in the Governors State case, saying that treating college students "like 15-year-old high school students and restricting their 1st Amendment rights by an unwise extension of Hazelwood would be an extreme step."
The ruling is only binding in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, but the opinion may be influential beyond the 7th Circuit, said John McGinnis, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law.
Jim Killam, past president of the Illinois College Press Association and adviser to the Northern Star at Northern Illinois University, said the ruling is "an overwhelming confirmation for the college media and [affirmation] that these students were right."
"It's probably the best-written effort by a court that I've seen that Hazelwood does not apply to college students, and that's terrific news," Killam said.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit are former Innovator editors Jeni Porche and Margaret Hosty and staff member Steven Barba.
Porche and Hosty took over the semimonthly paper at the 9,000-student college in University Park in May 2000 and began stirring controversy with investigative articles and stories critical of the faculty and administration.
Later that year, Carter told the Innovator's printer, Regional Publishing, that the newspaper must be reviewed by a school official before any more issues were printed. Carter argued that no one from the university had reviewed the paper for journalistic quality and that it may have contained grammatical errors.
The Innovator, founded in 1971, hasn't been published since. The students filed a federal lawsuit in January 2001, charging that their free press rights had been violated. Carter left Governors State last year.
The Governors State administration had no comment on the ruling Thursday. The student plaintiffs said they were stunned and thrilled by the ruling.
The question of extending a Hazelwood-type restriction to the college press caught the attention of university administrators, journalism groups and constitutional law experts across the country.
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