College press under scrutiny

Civil suit questions content control of student paper.

A federal appeals court in Chicago may soon determine the fate of college press freedom in an Illinois case that has caught the attention of student journalists, advisers and professors across the Midwest.

On Tuesday, oral arguments continued in a civil suit that has school officials at Governors State University in Illinois pitted against three student journalists who allege that administrators violated the First Amendment in an attempt to exercise prior restraint over the school's newspaper, the Innovator.

The case, Hosty v. Carter, was first heard by an Illinois federal trial court in 2001. The university was sued by Innovator editor Jeni Porche, managing editor Margaret Hosty and writer Steven Barba. The lawsuit followed an incident in October 2000 when Patricia Carter, former dean of student affairs, ordered the newspaper's printer to withhold from publishing any issue without administrative approval.

In November 2001, the federal trial court judge allowed the case to continue against Carter. In early 2002, the former dean, who was officially stripped of her job responsibilities for unspecified reasons last March, filed an appeal. The students believe her termination was a result of this case.

Following Carter's motion to appeal, the court allowed Cincinnati attorney Richard Goehler to file a friend-of-the-court brief in August 2002 on behalf of a coalition made up of 25 state and national media organizations, university journalism schools and civil rights groups.

The media groups in support of the brief were in disagreement with Illinois Attorney General James Ryan's request to the appeals court in support of the school's administrators to extend the Supreme Court's 1988 Hazelwood decision, which severely limited the First Amendment rights of high school students, to public college forums.

As the students' lawyer, Goehler was prepared Tuesday to uphold why the Hazelwood decision did not apply to student-led public forums such as college newspapers. He was surprised, however, at the university's attorneys' latest defense -- that administrators be granted the right to review the newspaper before publication to correct grammatical and spelling errors frequently found in the Innovator.

"In a high school setting where a publication is part of a curriculum, then such review would certainly be necessary," Goehler said. "That is not the case here. Any publication is bound to have grammatical errors in it, and if [Governors State] officials were so concerned with spelling in the Innovator, they should have taken it up with the students before attempting to stop the presses."

Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the school's latest argument could be yet another way for judges' to justify censorship of college publications.

"In this way, any story that may draw criticism to a university could be censored if school officials were given the authority to do so as a result of misspelling or poor grammar," Goodman said.

As Goodman explained, if the appeals court sides with the university, college free press rights in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin may not be the only freedom under fire -- free speech could be next.

"This applies to the First Amendment rights of all student clubs and organizations," Goodman said. "The implications are very real."

Following the hearing, both Hosty and Porche said they were appalled at the school's argument for censorship on the basis of grammatical errors.

"It was hard to sit there and take it all in because it was a pack of lies," Hosty said. "The defense is creating fiction as another way to win this case."

Porche said neither she nor any other member of the Innovator had ever discussed a problem with school officials regarding the newspaper's spelling and grammar.

"Those mistakes did happen," Porche explained, "but I think it was largely in part to the university trying to hold us back."

Hosty said she was also surprised at the university's argument that Carter was unaware of violating the students' rights upon making the phone call to the printer due to the lack of federal laws made regarding publications at the collegiate level.

"It was interesting how the attorney attempted to side-step the fact that Dean Carter was an appointed U.S. official," Hosty said. "Despite what she claims, she clearly knew that state officials do not have the authority to step in and infringe upon students' constitutional rights."

At 34, Hosty describes herself as a typical student at Governors State -- a university of 9,000 non-traditional students with more than 70 percent being women.

"Those of us at Governors State are old enough that we don't need someone stepping in to monitor what we're reading," she said.

In addition, as a former member of the U.S. military, Hosty is upset that she has fought for her country in the past to protect the very rights she must now defend.

"People who are old enough to be drafted are asked to defend this country's rights, but are being told they may now no longer be able to enjoy them," she said.

With a ruling in the case not likely to be made for another six to eight months, the students' and their supporters know it is hard to predict what will happen next.

"If they rule in our favor, the students' suit against Carter may proceed to trial," Goodman said. "The question then becomes whether or not the university wants to continue to defend a woman who is no longer employed by Governors State -- a complication for them that could certainly change the outcome of this case."