Is student-produced journalism under threat?

Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center )SPLC), wrote this editorial earlier this week that addresses that question.

Twenty-five years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court greatly reduced the First Amendment protection of students’ speech in “curricular” settings such as class-produced student newspapers. Although that case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, involved a Missouri high school, the legal standard it created increasingly is being applied to students in college and even graduate school.

This is a profoundly dangerous development. Hazelwood has devastated high-school journalism programs—one First Amendment law professor has described it as a “censorship tsunami”—and driven many of the best educators from the field.

Society cannot afford a repeat of Hazelwood’s 25 years of destruction at the college level. Not when college journalists are increasingly being asked to serve as providers of information for their communities, taking the place of laid-off professionals at shrinking media outlets.

LoMonte adds that recent legal cases suggest Hazelwood has legal standing for college media.

That colleges might claim the authority of Hazelwood—which permits censorship because speech is deemed to be “biased or prejudiced, vulgar or profane, or unsuitable for immature audiences”—was inconceivable.

But in January of 2012, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, which sets precedent for Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, and Tennessee, became the fourth judicial circuit to applyHazelwood to a First Amendment case brought by a college student.

In that case, Ward v. Polite, the appeals court determined that Hazelwood governed the claims of an Eastern Michigan University graduate student who alleged that the university had kicked her out of a degree program for school counselors because she expressed religion-based opposition to homosexuality.

Courts in the Sixth, Seventh, 10th, and 11th federal circuits, covering 16 states, have now said colleges may censor their students for any reason that is educationally defensible. Only the First Circuit (and then only in a footnote) has rejected Hazelwood at the college level, and the Supreme Court has evaded the question.

LoMonte also suggests that in such a legal environment, journalism content developing from a class could lead to pressure from administrators to faculty to ensure positive coverage of the campus.

Unlike news gathered by an independently financed campus newspaper, news created in a lab-class setting is vulnerable to Hazelwood censorship. And Hazelwood says, in so many words, that schools may censor news articles that “associate the school with any position other than neutrality on matters of political controversy.” It is flatly irreconcilable with watchdog journalism—and every journalism dean and department chair in America should say so.

If the newsroom of the near future is a classroom, then, for the good of the reading public and for all who benefit from robust accountability journalism, those who report the news for a grade need the same First Amendment independence as those who report the news for a paycheck.

Next month, a colleague and I are taking a group of students to the annual College Media Association convention. Discussion about this topic is sure to take place.

And shortly after we return, the RMU Department of Communication, of which I am a member of the faculty, is hosting Celebrating Communications! This one-day event recognizes the importance of the First Amendment and journalism in our society. Our keynote speaker is Mark Goodman, a former SPLC head who is now on the faculty at Kent State. Mr. Goodman will examine the legal landscape 25 years after the Hazelwood decision.

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