College administrators continue long tradition of seizing student publications

As the Report went to press, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit was set to rule any day on arguably the most famous instance of administrators confiscating a college student publication, Kincaid v. Gibson. In that case, Kentucky State University officials seized all 2,000 copies of the school's 1994 yearbook because they did not like the color of the cover, the title or the inclusion of a current events section. Two students, one of whom served as the editor of the now-infamous yearbook, sued Kentucky State, arguing that administrators violated their constitutional rights when they confiscated the books.

A district judge ruled in favor of KSU, citing the Supreme Court's 1988 decision in the high school censorship case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. The students appealed, and in 1999, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuit upheld the district court's decision. In May, the case was heard again by the entire Sixth Circuit court (See KSU).

But even as student press advocates anxiously await the judges' decision in Kincaid, administrators continue to confiscate student publications on campuses across the country. And even if the Sixth Circuit rules in favor of the students, it is likely this form of censorship will continue, particularly on private college campuses where administrators are not subject to the limitations imposed by the First Amendment. So the question persists: Why do so many college administrators feel the need to censor their students' work in this way?

Most college and university administrators who confiscate student newspapers claim to do it for justifiable reasons. Student editors and reporters have had to go head to head with presidents, deans and department heads who say they have a responsibility to the campus community to make sure that what is being published is "for the good of the school." They say student publications should reflect the community and should be used as a tool for education.

Kenneth Strike, chair of the department of education policy and leadership at the University of Maryland, said administrators who confiscate newspapers "for the good of the school" usually fear that a less-than-flattering article would result in a loss of financial donations or a smudge on their own reputations.

"Administrators [who confiscate student newspapers to avoid criticism] confuse their own good with that of the institution," Strike said. "One can sympathize with the administrator who does not want to see the budget go down the drain because of an intemperate article in the student paper, but not very much -- and not enough to justify censorship."

At Albright College, in Reading, Pa., the president ordered security officers to confiscate all copies of The Albrightian distributed around campus and to unlock the door to the paper's newsroom to take the additional copies. School officials said copies of the Nov. 9 issue were confiscated because of an article they believed contained inaccurate information about the school's ranking in a college guide. Officials for the college said they were also concerned that the newspaper may have violated copyright laws by reprinting some articles from the Reading Times, a local newspaper.

Matt Kemeny, editor of The Albrightian, said school officials' concerns were unfounded. He said his facts about the school's standing are accurate, and the administration never questioned the paper's right to publish outside stories before -- that is until the weekend of Nov. 10 when the university was hosting prospective students. Kemeny said he thinks administrators wanted to keep the papers out of the hands of prospective students because they feared the article exposing the college's falling rank would give the visiting students a bad impression of the school.

Barbara Marshall, director of college relations at Albright, admitted that the presence of prospective students on campus did factor into the decision to take the papers, not because officials did not want students to see the rankings, but because they believe the rankings published in Barron's Profiles of American Colleges were incorrect. She said the guide was mistakenly given erroneous information that lowered the school's score. Marshall said that because the school is the publisher of the newspaper and is responsible for what it prints, officials felt they had a responsibility to prevent incorrect information from circulating around campus.

Marshall added that administrators only delayed distribution of the papers, they did not confiscate them entirely. The issues were returned to the newspaper staff following a heated discussion between newspaper staffers and school officials over press rights. Nothing regarding the paper's rights was resolved, but administrators reluctantly returned all copies of the issue.

At New York's Yeshiva University, administrators gave the YU Commentator $1,850 to compensate it for all the times school officials confiscated copies of the newspaper when the university had important visitors or special events on campus.

The articles that prompted administrators to confiscate papers in November 1999 included one questioning the firing of a secretary and another insinuating that Yeshiva officials were not properly using an $8 million gift to the school. The administration also stole copies of an issue that had a story about the confiscation itself.

Aaron Kline, former co-editor of the Commentator, said this pattern of censorship had gone on for 65 years until the administration admitted to it, apologized, promised to keep it from happening again and compensated the paper financially.

Although Yeshiva is a private college, it is against school policy to confiscate newspapers, according to Kline.

"They're scared right now," Kline said. "They're not going to do it again, not this year at least. They are really afraid of more bad publicity."

The administration admitted confiscating the papers only after the Commentator contacted The New York Times. The Times published a story about the paper's allegations, and not long after, the student publication received a letter from administrators apologizing for the thefts.

At the College of Lake County, in Grayslake, Ill., administrators were also concerned about the student newspaper making the school look bad. But it was grammatical errors in the paper, not an inflammatory article, that led officials to halt publication in March.

Darl Drummond, the college's vice president of student development, allegedly told the small, disorganized staff of The Chronicle in March that if they did not allow her to review the newspaper for spelling and grammatical mistakes she would call the printer and halt publication. When Elizabeth Galant, editor of The Chronicle, refused, the printer did not publish the issue.

Drummond claims she never called the printer. She said the printer called her to tell her The Chronicle had not paid its bill, and therefore it would not print the issue.

Galant has since left the paper and could not be reached for comment.

Drummond said what she did was not censorship. She said it was an offer of assistance and an attempt to get the editors' attention and help them understand the problems with the newspaper's content.

"I believe free press is an inherent right of student newspapers," Drummond said. "Having said that, I also believe that the student paper has a responsibility to its community, to weigh and evaluate through its editorial process, what is appropriate or inappropriate within its environment."

Albright College's director of college relations agrees.

Marshall said Albright also encourages free speech and freedom of the press, but as an educational institution, administrators feel they have an obligation to educate students.

"It's not just a free-for-all," she said. "[The student journalists] are here for a purpose, so the idea of using the paper as a vehicle for furthering their education is something that is very important to us as well. The Albrightian is primarily an educational medium, and as an educational institution, the college also has the responsibility to make students aware of possible consequences of items contained in the paper."

At some schools, conservative voices have sometimes prompted censorship by their more liberal administrators.

Last spring, the editor of The Conservative Column at Pennsylvania's Villanova University accused university officials of censorship when they confiscated all 2,000 copies of the March 15 issue, saying it was because the paper did not have an adviser.

Chris Lilik, editor of the student newspaper, claimed Tom Mogan, director of student development, took the press run because the paper is often critical of liberals on the Catholic school's campus.

Mogan admitted to Lilik on an answering machine message that there was some concern about the content of the newspaper and that he was going to hold the papers in his office until The Column found an adviser. But Mogan said the problems he had with the newspaper's content were a minor reason for the confiscation. The main issue, he said, was the fact that The Column was not an official student organization on campus, and as such they could not distribute the paper. He said unauthorized distribution of material on campus violated the school's sales and solicitation policy.

After The Column secured an adviser, Mogan returned the papers to the staff.

Advocates for press freedom on all levels contend that censorship goes against the very reason colleges and universities exist. Strike said that although the ideal of such a free society may have some adverse effects on the school, administrators must embrace that ideal in order to educate by example.

"The marketplace of ideas is a central feature of the environment of any institution that views itself as a center of inquiry," Strike said. "Apart from some compelling justification, censorship erodes this key value. Responsible administrators will recognize that there is occasionally, maybe even literally, a price to pay for intellectual freedom and will use the occasion to educate donors and citizens about the importance of the marketplace of ideas."

reports, Winter 2000-01