College Hazelwood case rumbles on
Kentucky State issue goes to Circuit Court
KENTUCKY — Train A leaves Hazelwood, Mo., in 1988 moving at 500 miles per hour.
Train B leaves Frankfort, Ky., on the same track, moving in the opposite direction at the same speed.
How long will it take before they collide?
Mark Witherspoon says about 10 years.
“This is what we1ve been waiting for, dreading for years,” said the student media advocate and president of College Media Advisers. “The same thing will happen to colleges that has happened to high schools. Strong journalism programs will be weeded out or cut, and strong teachers who teach kids how to do the job correctly will be replaced.”
This is the grim situation college journalists will face if two Kentucky State University students lose their appeal this fall to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, he said.
The students, Charles Kincaid and Capri Coffer, filed the lawsuit in 1995 after university administrators confiscated all 2,000 copies of the school’s yearbook, prohibiting its distribution. Also, the coordinator of student publications, Laura Cullen, was temporarily transferred to the housing department at about the same time, claiming it was because of her refusal to censor the campus newspaper.
In 1997, District Judge Joseph Hood ruled in Kincaid v. Gibson that Kentucky State administrators could control student publications. This was the first time that a judge had allowed censorship of a college publication based on the U.S. Supreme Court1s 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which allowed the censorship of certain high school publications.
To help influence the upcoming Circuit Court decision in favor of the students, 21 national media organizations, including the Student Press Law Center and the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and 17 college journalism departments, signed onto three friend-of-the-court briefs.
“If not overturned by this Court, [Hood’s] decision will stifle freedom of speech and press for all students and hinder the ability of the commercial news media to recruit well-trained and educated young journalists…,” stated the brief for SPJ and other professional media organizations.
Harold Greene Jr., attorney for Kentucky State, said the sole reason for prohibiting the yearbook was because of its poor quality.
“The yearbook should have the correct names next to the pictures,” he said. “This is memorializing the school. We want to reserve the right to ensure the quality of the product.”
Greene also said that since the administration considers the yearbook a non-public forum, it is not subject to total First Amendment protection.
“The yearbook is not protected under the law in the way that the student newspaper is,” he said. “The yearbook is not a public forum.”
Witherspoon, however, said if the students lose their appeal, college administrators from all over the country will take advantage of the situation to control newspaper content.
“If the university can stop the distribution of a yearbook, for whatever reason, then the next step is to stop the distribution of newspapers,” he said. “All administrators get together in their circles and hold conventions. This is going to get out.”
Kincaid is a threat to all journalists, Witherspoon said. “If I was an adviser, I would be very interested and do anything I can to influence the decision,” he said.
But many advisers within the Sixth Circuit, which includes Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio and Tennessee, said they were not overly concerned with the case.
“I’m concerned in principle, but I don1t feel very concerned for us because we are in a different situation,” said David Golewenski, adviser to the Lantern, the student newspaper at Ohio State University. “Legally, we meet the criteria and are a public forum.”
Daniel Rice, interim director of student publications at Ohio University, said he was unfamiliar with Kincaid and, after learning of it, did not think it would affect the student newspaper, The Post.
“This is, essentially, a one paper town,” he said. “There is too much tradition with The Post. But you can never predict what the administration would do.”
Just as they said the concern is not completely there, advisers admitted that administrators would probably take advantage of a legal right to censor.
“There are definitely some administrators who would like to control what goes in the paper,” Golewenski said.
Terrance Teagarden, adviser to the Collegian at the University of Toledo, is one who said he is “definitely concerned” with the case. “Luckily, the administration is very supportive of our publication and nobody has ever tried to stop us,” he said. “But I could definitely see the administration try if they could. They’re so concerned about image and spin control.”
But Sharonda Holmes, the adviser of student publications at Kentucky State who replaced Cullen after her resignation, said she is not worried about the case, which will have little impact on the campus newspaper regardless of the outcome.
“We haven’t had any form of censorship and have not had any problems up until this point,” she said. “No one has tried to stop us or question our reporting. Besides, everybody on that staff is gone now.”
Greene insisted that administrators were not out to censor student publications or infringe on First Amendment rights.
“Student papers are usually very critical of the administration,” he said. “I was the same way in college — marching, writing letters to the editor.
“I would be concerned if there was a restriction to First Amendment rights. Then our country would be on the road to hell.”
But Robert O’Neil, an attorney at the Thomas Jefferson Center for the Protection of Free Expression in Virginia, said restricting First Amendment rights is exactly what Kentucky State administrators had done.
“They barred the distribution of an authorized student publication where editors were responsible for delegating the content,” said O’Neil, whose 20-year university administration career included stints as provost and president of various institutions. “I would understand if it was for non-content reasons, such as coming back from the printer full of blank pages, or in a foreign language, or in toxic ink. The facts in this particular case are that it is unmistakably content-based because the administrators say the photos did not properly portray campus life at the school.”
Fall 1998, Kincaid v. Gibson, reports