A court decision handed down in Kentucky could have grave repercussions for college media nationwide.
In Charles Kincaid vs. Betty Gibson, a circuit-court decision Wednesday upheld a district-court ruling that Kentucky State University, a public institution, acted legally when it confiscated 2,000 copies of the student yearbook, “The Thorobred,” in 1994 because administrators did not approve of the book’s purple cover and thought parts of the book were poor in quality.
As a precedent, the court relied on Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier, a 1988 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that because Hazelwood East High School chartered the student newspaper as an educational tool, and not as a public forum, the newspaper could be censored by the school.
The Supreme Court ruling is devastating to the freedom of college press. The courts are allowing school officials to censor any material they find to be “ungrammatical,” “poorly written” or “inappropriate.” The ruling may have been written with good intentions, but in reality, school officials could bend this legal definition to censor anything.
Furthermore, colleges and universities should be places that encourage the free flow of ideas. Student journalists should not fear expressing a critique of their school’s administration. Student newspapers are the training ground for professional journalists. If they are not allowed to practice their trade with free expression, they will be ill-equipped for real-world journalism.
The Kincaid decision has erected a legal barrier to freedom of the press and expression in higher education. If the ruling stands, pending a likely Supreme Court review, no one will win with the precedent of Kincaid vs. Gibson.