University comes under criticsm for censorship

Posted 5:59 p.m. Oct. 9

by Melissa Kronfeld

(U-WIRE) WASHINGTON–A coalition of 25 state and national media groups in addition to other First Amendment rights advocates, including the Student Press Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), will defend the right to free press for college newspaper publications later this fall after two graduate students filed suit against their university for unlawful censorship in 2000.

On Sept. 24, 2002, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago ruled that oral arguments for the Hosty v. Carter case may be presented to a panel of federal judges. The case addresses the censorship imposed upon the Innovator, a student newspaper for the Governor State University in Illinois.

In the spring of 2000, Jeni Porshe and Margaret Hosty were appointed editor-in-chief and managing editor respectively of the Innovator by the university Communications Media Board. Steven Barba was hired as a staff reporter. Graduate students in the field of English studies, the worked to transform the paper from a public-relations tool for the university, filled with what they thought was “fluff and stuff,” into a forum for public debate.

Porshe, Hosty and Barba initiated a series of editorials that attacked the classroom performance of campus professors, specified by name, and criticized the administration as being antagonistic to the concerns of the students.

In one article, written by Hosty, she questioned the teaching abilities of the chairwoman of the English department, Rashidah Jaami’ Muhammad. Hosty quoted students who accused the professor of making racial slurs in class and of giving incorrect information to those students to whom she served as academic advisor.

Hosty wrote, “The administration’s willful ignorance of the deplorable state of affairs in the English department with Muhammad at the mast is reminiscent of the blind leading the blind, and some students have minds and futures too bright to allow them to become entirely misled.”

Following the publication of the articles in question, the university Dean Patricia Carter, denounced the actions of Hosty, Porche and Barba, stating that they were not operating in a “fair and ethical manner.”

In an open letter to both the students and faculty members in November 2000, the university president, Stuart I. Fagan, characterized the recent content of the paper as “an angry barrage of unsubstantiated allegations that essentially, and unfairly, excoriated some members of the university faculty and administration (myself included).”

He continued to state that the students were seriously one-sided in their reporting and had “took on the role of judge, jury, and executioner.”

According to the newspaper staff, minor acts of harassment were committed against them as a means to thwart their ability to work on the paper. Hosty and Porche reported that the locks of the news office were changed, and they were not issued new keys. Instead, they were required to be accompanied by campus security when they needed to enter or exit the newspaper building. Additionally, they claim that a member of the university administration repeatedly checked the Innovator email account and deleted numerous messages.

Pressure was even applied upon the paper’s advisor, Geof-fray de Laforcade. As Laforcade told the Student Press Law Center, “They expressed hope that I would ‘reel in’ the editors when controversial material was published, but I never complied with that suggestion. My understanding of the role of the adviser was that I should be the professional conscience of the paper. … My job is not to censor content.”

Dean Carter then contacted Charles Richards of the Regional Publishing Company, who held the contract for printing the Innovator. She instructed him to withhold the publication of any future issues of the paper until a member of university administration had the opportunity to review its content. Richards relayed the message to Hosty in a memo dated Nov. 14, 2000. The Innovator has remained unpublished since.

Carter claimed that her actions were only intended to act as a means of reviewing journalistic quality, more specifically grammatical and spelling errors.

Despite university policy which states that the student body “will determine content and format of their respective publications without censorship or advance approval,” Carter has said she was totally justified in her actions.

In response, Hosty stated, “We told [university administrators] they were breaking the law, and they did not care. The Constitution means something to us. .People have given their lives for these rights, and the thing that really [bothers] me is that the university violated the Constitution.”

Hosty, Porshe and Barba filed a friend-of-the-court brief in August of 2001, essentially suing the university for a violation of their First Amendment right. The official lawsuit was filed in January of 2001.

Attorney Richard Goehler of the Cincinnati law firm Frost Brown Todd took on the case, and will argue on behalf of the Innovator staff when the case goes before the federal panel of judges. A member of the Student Press Law Center’s Attorney Referral Network, Goehler also served as the defense attorney for Kincaid v. Gibson in January of 2001.

Much like the Hosty case, the Kincaid v. Gibson suit was filed in 1994 when the administration of the Kentucky State University confiscated all the yearbooks for the 1993-1994 school term. The university objected to, among other claims, the color of the publication’s cover, which was not the traditional school colors, and the yearbook’s theme, “Destination Unknown,” as reflecting badly upon the school itself.

The administration also transferred the student publication advisor from her top-level post to a secretarial position, when she refused to censor certain material from the school paper.

With Goehler leading the defense, the 6th Circuit voted on Jan. 5, 2001 10 to 3 to reverse a lower court decision that upheld the confiscation of the yearbooks. It was only in late February of 2001 that the now infamous 1994 yearbooks were released.

It is the hope of the Illinois Attorney General James Ryan, the Republican candidate for Governor, that the federal panel of judges who will here the Hosty case will extend the Hazelwood decision to college publications.

In the 1988 case of the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmer, it was ruled that high school administrations are allowed a wide latitude to review and even censor student publications. The application of the Hazelwood decision in the Hosty case would be an endorsement of the notion that public college and university students have an equally limited right of freedom of expression to that of high school students.

Although many journalistic organizations have criticized the editors of the Innovator for unethical conduct, the members of the reporting world agree that the university administration was overzealous in their actions, and in fact broke constitutional law.

“This is one of the strongest outpourings of support for college press freedom that we’ve ever seen,” said Student Press Law Center Executive Director Mark Goodman. “The fact that professional journalists and journalism educators have joined to say that the future of our profession depends on strong protection for press freedom on college campuses is something we hope this court will take seriously.”

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