Freedom Fighter


Kentucky State plaintiff reflects on Kincaid v. Gibson censorship case





\nKENTUCKY - When Charles Kincaid enrolled at Kentucky State\nUniversity six years ago, he was not planning to graduate with\na lawsuit accompanying the diploma in his hand.

A U.S. Army veteran, husband and father, Kincaid graduated\nin 1998 with a degree in nursing, but he left the university with\nanother distinction--that of becoming a major figure in one of\nthe most significant student press legal battles of the 1990s:\nthe Kentucky State censorship case, Kincaid v. Gibson.

In November 1997, a federal district court upheld the confiscation\nand censorship of approximately 2,000 copies of the 1993-94 edition\nof the Kentucky State University student yearbook by school officials.\nThe yearbooks remain locked away in a university storage room\nto this day.

At the same time, the court also threw out the student plaintiffs'\nclaim that Kentucky State officials had acted illegally by transferring\nthe student publications' adviser to a secretarial position after\nshe refused to censor a letter to the editor in the student newspaper\nthat was critical of school administrators.

In reaching his decision, Judge Joseph M. Hood cited a 1988\nU.S. Supreme Court case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier,\nwhich upheld the censorship of a high school newspaper. This case,\nKincaid v. Gibson, marks the first time that a court has\nused the high school-based Hazelwood standard to uphold\nthe censorship of college student media.

In a recent interview, Kincaid recalled walking to the student\nlife center at Kentucky State in 1994 to pick up his copy of the\nuniversity's yearbook. After being told by an office worker that\nthe yearbook was not available, Kincaid assumed there was just\na delay and he decided he would come back later.

"I ran into my friend Laura Cullen [the yearbook's faculty\nadvisor] about 10 minutes later," Kincaid said. "I told\nher I wasn't able to pick up my yearbook, and she said, 'Haven't\nyou heard?'"

What Kincaid had not heard was that Betty Gibson, Kentucky\nState's vice president for student affairs, had halted distribution\nof the yearbook with an act of prior restraint. Gibson said she\nconfiscated all copies of the yearbook because of what she claimed\nwere its poor quality, unclear dedication, inadequate headlines\nand incorrect cover color.

"I went to the library, pulled out a copy of the Bill\nof Rights and began to read," Kincaid said. "That was\nthe first time I sat and read the U.S. Constitution from beginning\nto end, and when I had finished, I knew that my rights had been\nviolated."

Kincaid was not about to stand by and whistle a happy tune\nwhile the Kentucky State administration denied him his yearbook.

"I finally went to Laura and talked it over with her again,"\nKincaid said. "[University administrators] had illegally\nseized my property, denied me due process, and I wanted to do\nsomething about it."

Cullen then referred Kincaid to attorney Bruce Orwin, who would\nultimately represent Cullen, Kincaid and fellow student and yearbook\neditor Capri Coffer in a lawsuit against the university.

Kincaid recalled giving a deposition early in the case to a\nmember of the legal defense team for the university where he answered\nquestions for more than two hours--what he referred to as a ridiculous\namount of time to discuss a matter that, to him, seemed so simple.

"[One of Kentucky State's attorneys] said to me, 'Mr.\nKincaid, how much money would it take for this to just go away,'"\nKincaid said. "I told him, 'You're asking me to prostitute\nmy Bill of Rights, and I can't do that. My constitutional rights\ndo not have a price.'"

Kincaid said he was offended that an institution of higher\neducation such as Kentucky State, which was supposed to be making\nhim a more knowledgeable person, was not allowing him to determine\nfor himself whether or not material he had paid for was suitable\nfor viewing.

"What if I came over to your house and saw a watch of\nyours I liked and just took it without your permission?"\nKincaid said. "It's nothing short of thievery, and this is\nexactly the same. I know that I'm right and that I have been offended\nby an institution that sees me as a pest."

Kincaid also said the lawsuit has caused him to be disillusioned\nwith the legal process, especially when he contemplates the thousands\nof dollars, hundreds of people and hours of toiling it has taken\nto resolve the case.

"It's caused me to think about how ridiculous this country\ncan be," Kincaid said. "At this point, I still have\nfaith in our justice system, but this has borne on my mind for\nfive or six years."

When Kincaid thinks about the case, he also draws upon a lesson\nhe learned in the army from Command Sgt. Maj. Stephen Hockenberry,\nwho once advised Kincaid to have "moral courage" in\nall he did.

"To me, moral courage says that if you believe in something,\nyou stand up for it," Kincaid said. "Don't get knocked\noff your box, be willing to die for it. And to be quite honest,\nI'm willing to die for this case because it means that much to\nme."

Meanwhile, Kincaid is waiting with the rest of the nation's\ncampus media to hear what the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth\nCircuit will decide. The case was argued before the court in March,\nand a ruling could come any day. But Kincaid is not prepared to\ngive up if the court rules against him.

"If the court of appeals sides with Kentucky State,"\nKincaid said, "we're going to take a trip to Washington."


Fall 1999, reports