In today’s Spartan Daily, the student newspaper here at San Jose State University, former Daily executive editor John Myers reports that a California legislator has introduced a bill in the state assembly that would make it more difficult for university officials to censor campus media outlets.
Myers wrote that Leland Yee, the sponsor of the bill, said it would allow students to collect damages if they are disciplined for comments they wrote or said in campus media.
Yee says the bill is a response to this case at Governors State University in Illinois, in which administrators allegedly called the printer and told him to hold the paper until they had signed off on its content. From what I’ve read about the case, it still seems a little murky as to whether the newspaper was funded by the university or not — I’m guesing it was. And, the student editors appear to have been playing a bit fast and loose with the rules by publishing some bits of opinion — about at least one professor the writer had a class with at the time — in the news section.
Nevertheless, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to let stand the appeals court ruling against the students was a disturbing one, given that the ruling was based on Hazelwood (484 U.S. 260, 1988). In the Hazelwood case, the Supreme Court ruled that administrators at a public high school could censor the student paper as they pleased.
At what point does the importance of teaching students how to use the First Amendment trump the superficial and temporary concerns of college administrators? I can understand the Supreme Court’s reluctance to give high-school-aged editors, who serve an audience under 18, free reign. College media, however, serves an adult audience, and provides a crucial function in the ecosystem of the press in this country, acting as the final laboratory for journalism students before they are unleashed on the public-at-large.
The new California bill (AB 2581) would protect students from university censorship by prohibiting college administrators at University of California and California State University schools from making any rules infinging on constitutional freedoms for free press protections. The code already protects student “speech,” but the changes would protect student “press.” Also, censored students could file civil suits to combat the actions of university administration.
One catch in the law, as it stands and as proposed, is that it’s talking about communications “engaged in outside a campus.” What exactly does that mean? It sounds like the old “Are we independent?” question. If the paper is funded by the school, can the dean insist on approving content? I’m not sure this bill answers that question, but then again, I’m just a student of media law, not a lawyer. Anyone out there want to give me a clue on that question?
At the Spartan Daily, we’re in a pretty unusual situation (or so they tell me — please correct me if I’m wrong about the details) in that our newspaper is a class. We get credit for it, and it’s the required capstone course for journalism majors on the newspaper reporting & editing track. But, I’ve never heard of or seen or heard stories about any real censorship coming from either the administration or the faculty advisers to the paper. Would the proposed legislation protect us? It doesn’t sound like it, but I don’t think anyone feels unprotected right now. Lucky us.
[Full disclosure: Um, yeah, I write for a college newspaper.]
For more on Yee’s proposal, check out the San Mateo County Times story on the bill, including mention of a recent memo from CSU lawyers to university presidents regarding censoring campus media.