Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is arguing on the wrong side in a case that threatens the independence of college and university journalists.
Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who has earned high marks for advocating for open meetings and freedom of information requests of state and local governments, is on the other side of the fence in a recent brief her office filed with the U.S. Supreme Court.
On Dec. 28, Madigan asked the court to decline to hear a troubling college newspaper censorship case that originated at Governors State University in suburban Chicago. The case, Hosty v. Carter, arose in 2000 when a dean at Governors State, Patricia Carter, told the printer of the student newspaper, The Innovator, to hold future issues of the paper until a school official had given approval of the paper's contents. The paper had published several stories and editorials critical of the university administration.
In her brief, Madigan confines herself mostly to the issue of whether Carter deserves immunity from damages. But in requesting that the Supreme Court not review a June 2005 opinion by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Madigan essentially urges the court to extend existing controls on high school student newspapers to college and university papers. In a 1988 case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, the Supreme Court restricted First Amendment rights for high school students by permitting administrators to review student newspapers prior to publication.
Sadly, that was the opinion of the seven-member majority of the 7th Circuit last summer. It wrote that "there is no sharp difference between high school and college papers."
That opinion "undermines the goal of encouraging students to mature as journalists and prevents them from learning that they are responsible for what they publish," according to a brief filed with the Supreme Court by a journalism educators' group. "Permitting a system of prior restraint, as in (the Hosty v. Carter) case, harms the interests of campus and local leaders in seeking relevant and critical coverage of issues in their community, including the administration of the local university."
As Judge Terence Evans, one of the dissenters in last year's appeals court decision wrote, "College students voting-age citizens and potential future leaders should feel free to question, challenge and criticize government action. Nevertheless, as a result of (this ruling), Dean Carter could have censored The Innovator by merely establishing 'legitimate pedagogical reasons.' This court now gives the green light to school administrators to restrict student speech in a manner inconsistent with the First Amendment."
The Hazelwood decision already has had a chilling effect on high school journalism. According to the Student Press Law Center, a New York principal censored an accurate story from a student paper that reported that there were only two working bathrooms in a school of 3,600 students. An Indiana high school newspaper's story about a tennis coach who illegally took more than $1,000 that team members paid for court time was muzzled by administrators.
It would be a tragedy if similar cases of solid journalism by college and university students were thwarted by administrators with the blessing of the federal courts and the attorney general of Illinois.