In a clear victory for student journalists across the nation, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled Friday that Kentucky State University administrators violated the First Amendment when they seized all copies of a 1993 student yearbook they claimed lacked quality.
The landmark 10-3 ruling in Kincaid vs. Gibson reversed a 1999 district court ruling and decided not to apply the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier standard to college publications. In that decision, the Court ruled that high school newspapers do not qualify as a public forum and that administration has the authority to prevent speech it considers against the school’s educational mission.
“Confiscation ranks with forced government speech as amongst the purest forms of content alteration,” Judge R. Guy Cole wrote in the decision. “We will not sanction a reading of the First Amendment that permits government officials to censor expression in a limited public forum in order to coerce speech that pleases the government. The KSU … officials’ actions violate the Constitution.”
The case stems from the publication of the Thorobred, KSU’s student yearbook, in an edition that covered the 1992-93 and 1993-94 school years. University officials deemed it “was not of proper quality and did not represent the school a(s) it should.” The university locked away all 2,000 copies of the yearbook.
Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the Cincinnati court’s ruling reaffirms three decades of similar decisions.
“In many ways, this doesn’t change the law — it strengthens it,” Goodman told U-WIRE Friday. “I think the most significant thing about this ruling is that it just reinforces 35 years of court decisions from all around the country that have consistently said college journalists are entitled to strong First Amendment protection.”
Goodman called the university’s initial actions “absurd.”
“I would hope the university has gotten to the point that it is embarrassed by what was done here,” he added.
KSU Director of Public Relations Jacqueline Bingham said Friday the university had just received the decision.
“An appeal would be an option,” Bingham said. “We’re a long way from that.”
Bingham said she had no sense of how or when the confiscated yearbooks would be returned.
The yearbook featured the theme “Destination Unknown” and a purple cover. University officials claimed the theme was vague and inappropriate and the cover did not feature school colors, according to the court decision. KSU President Mary Smith also objected to a lack of captions under photographs and the inclusion of too many photographs depicting celebrities and current events, the court decision said.
Yearbook editor Capri Coffer said during the proceedings that she was simply conveying the thoughts and feelings of KSU students at the time, when uncertainty about the future dominated campus life.
In the days following the university’s confiscation of $9,000 worth of student-funded yearbooks, student publications adviser Laura Cullen was relieved of her duties and placed on temporary secretarial assignment in the university’s Office of Housing.
In 1995, Coffer and fellow KSU student Charles Kincaid filed suit against KSU President Mary Smith, Vice President for Student Affairs Betty Gibson, and individual members of the Board of Regents. Their suit alleged the violation of their First and 14th Amendment rights.
The students’ case navigated more than five years of legal wrangling and took a setback in September 1999 when a divided three-judge panel on the Sixth Circuit ruled in favor of the university — a decision that stood in stark contrast to rulings of the previous 30 years. In a rare move, the Court of Appeals scrapped its initial decision and agreed in November 1999 to rehear the case before a larger panel of judges.
Friday’s ruling sends a clear message to university officials, SPLC’s Goodman said.
“I think the message it sends (to universities) is back off,” he said. “The courts are not going to tolerate their efforts to control content.”
Goodman encouraged students to challenge censorship on their campuses.
“It makes clear that these battles are worth fighting on the part of college journalists and the courts are on their side,” he said. “Those who are experiencing censorship should stand up, condemn it and fight for their rights.”