Attorneys for University of Texas System have advised its schools to impose high school controls on student papers
TEXAS — Eight years after the Supreme Court handed down its ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier — giving high school administrators greater authority to censor school sponsored student publications — one of the largest public university systems in the country is pressing to extend the ruling to college and university student media.
The University of Texas Pan American is the most recent of the nine Texas System schools to be targeted for implementation of a prior review policy by the school’s Office of General Counsel.
David Waltz, editor of the Pan American, the student newspaper at the university, said he would do everything in his power to keep such a policy from getting implemented.
The situation began in April 1992 when the Texas System called for a revision of the Pan American publications policy. Since then, more than ten different policies have been drafted, each implementing prior review in one form or another.
Pan American drafted its policies following the advice of the Texas System’s Office of General Counsel, Waltz said. J. Robert Giddings, Texas System attorney, cited Hazelwood as justification for the office’s advice.
In May 1994, in a letter addressed to the associate executive vice chancellor for academic affairs for the Texas System, Giddings wrote, “Educators do not offend the First Amendment by exercising editorial control over the style and content of student speech in school-sponsored expressive activities … This would be especially true when the prior review of newspaper articles is for the purpose of screening for materials which might defame or libel and thereby incur liability for the university.”
Waltz said he believed a prior review policy would strip him of his rights as a student journalist. He said the newspaper staff’s First Amendment rights would be slashed and student trust in the paper would disappear.
The Pan American has not been subject to prior review in the past and Waltz said no one on the campus had anything to do with the issue being raised. He said Giddings started everything after giving his advice to the administration.
In its opinion, the Hazelwood court explicitly refused to extend its decision to college and university student publications. Giddings’ letter indicates the University of Texas is prepared to push for that extension.
When asked about his translation of the Hazelwood decision, Giddings refused to comment and said it was not his job to provide legal advice to organizations other than schools in the Texas System.
In another letter to the system’s executive vice chancellor for academic affairs, Giddings indicated “substantial” problems with a proposed Pan American policy in February 1995.
The policy Giddings referred to stated, “Neither the university or any of its agents are empowered to exercise any control over the content of student publications.”
He suggested changing the policy to read: “The student faculty adviser … shall exercise complete oversight authority for the review of all official publications.”
Robert Rollins, student publications adviser at Pan American, said other Texas System schools have been hurt by Giddings’ translation of Hazelwood. He said The University of Texas at El Paso and The University of Texas at Arlington had prior review policies added to their publication handbooks following Giddings’ advice.
“We have resisted that,” Rollins said with regards to the requested policies. “Our policy specifically provides that the editor has editorial control of the paper.”
The latest draft of Pan American’s policy, which will be submitted for final approval in the future, states, “University officials are not permitted to review copy prior to distribution.”
However, later provisions in the policy invalidate the former: “The newspaper adviser is authorized to withhold copy for 48 hours pending the appeals process.”
The University of Texas at Arlington’s policy gives review power to an “editorial adviser” whose job is to read copy prior to publication.
“[The] Editorial adviser will assist editors in evaluating and correcting material that violates journalistic practice,” Arlington’s policy reads. “Under no circumstances will material be removed from publication without the editor’s consent unless the adviser believes it to be libelous.”
Dorothy Estes, director of student publications at Arlington, said she reads copy prior to publishing only at the request of student editors. “We never say, ‘you have to bring us the copy’,” she said.
No serious censorship issues have arisen at the student newspaper at Arlington.
El Paso’s student publication policy gives the university full responsibility for the content of all official student publications. But, according to the publications manager at the school, students have full control.
“The editor has to take full responsibility for his or her actions,” said Sheela Wolford, publications manager at El Paso. “If the administration wanted to come down hard on us, they could.”
Wolford said the newspaper had an editorial adviser, but that he was only there to give advice. “If the students want to run something, they run it,” she said. “I am trying to teach them responsible journalism.”
Wolford said the written policy was “just a formality” that was not strictly adhered to.
Students at the schools are unaware of the possibility of censorship because no individual that has held one of these “advising” positions has exercised their prior review authority, according to advisors at the different system schools.
Smaller schools such as the University of Texas at Brownsville also have prior review policies written into their publication handbooks.
“The UTB administration … has authority to examine and reject any material deemed to libelous, obscene, and invasion of privacy or a misstatement of fact,” states the handbook.
Kathy Lawrence, general manager of Texas Student Publications at The University of Texas at Austin, said she intended to have all prior review policies removed from her handbook.
Last spring the editor of the Daily Texan, the student newspaper at Austin, threatened to take the school to court over editorial control, but dropped the matter when the university agreed to drop the policies that allowed school officials to prohibit certain kinds of controversial material from being published in the paper. Former Editor Rob Rogers had several prior review policies removed, but did not contest the section of the policy allowing the paper’s adviser to exercise prior review over an editor’s objection and hold material that he or she considers to be libelous or obscene.
Tara Copp, editor of the Daily Texan at Austin, said administrative review for libel and obscenity is still on the books.
“We have pretty free reign here,” Copp said. “We have a faculty manager that gives us advice and corrects factual errors.”
Lawrence said prior review had been in her school’s handbook for years but no serious problems had occurred.
The only courts to rule on the issue of required prior review at a public college or university have said it is unconstitutional, even for libelous or obscene material. In the years since the Hazelwood decision, no court has applied its restrictive interpretation of student First Amendment rights to college journalists. Few schools have been willing to publicly make such an argument.
“Most administrators know that the entire journalism education community will make sure that the dire effects of Hazelwood are not extended to college journalists without a major fight,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “The University of Texas System is risking a public relations nightmare if they push this argument.”
Rosalind Florez, the chairwoman of the College Media Advisers Media Law Committee, said she could not believe the Texas System would open themselves up to such an extreme amount of liability with such a policy.
“Student media is supposed to be an educational experience,” she said. “This policy would open the door for more censorship. I would hate to think that we are now applying high school standards to adults.
“Students should be able to make logical decisions,” she said. “I would hate to place my university in that position.”
Waltz is skeptical Pan American’s policy will ever read in an acceptable manner. He said he hoped everything could be taken care of at the university level, adding that he would take further action if prior review was implemented.
Fall 1996, reports