SPLC condemns censorship at Kansas State

Over the last 30 years, the Student Press Law Center has confronted no small number of censorship problems at schools around that nation. But a situation continuing to unfold at a university in Kansas has prompted an extreme action: an official SPLC statement of condemnation.

In July statement was in response to the actions of officials at Kansas State University in removing the student newspaper adviser based on the content decisions made by student editors. The SPLC has grave concerns about the legal arguments KSU officials are making about free press protections for students at the university. Those arguments are, quite simply, unprecedented, dangerous and offensive to the First Amendment.

The dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Kansas State, acting on the recommendation of the school of journalism director, removed Collegian adviser Ron Johnson in May after a campus controversy over the newspaper's coverage. Correspondence from A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications Director Todd F. Simon and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Stephen E. White released as part of the lawsuit filed by Johnson and Collegian editors contesting the school's actions make clear that the newspaper's content was a motivating factor in the decision to remove Johnson. 

In fact, Simon appeared to base his decision in large part on a superficial "content analysis" he conducted of stories published in the Collegian compared to stories published on the Web sites of six other student newspapers. Simon concluded that the Collegian did not include sufficient "diversity" coverage.Independent of the methodological flaws in this "research," the analysis was based on a presumption that student editors in fact do not have the authority to make content decisions relating to diversity coverage that school officials disagree with. 

The fact that student editors may choose to cover diversity issues differently from school administrators does not give a public university the authority to remove an adviser as punishment. The First Amendment protects the right of public college student editors to make their own decisions free from direct or indirect efforts to manipulate content.Officials at Kansas State, seeking to overrule over 30 years of legal precedent on the topic, have a different view. In a court filing, they justified using the content of the student publication as a basis for taking punitive action against it in the following way:

[The content] analysis goes to the general quality of the newspaper in terms of objectively measurable journalistic standards, not to any substantive expressions made therein, It is only those substantive expressions that are protected as free speech by the First Amendment. Plaintiff's confusion of this critical difference is the crux of this case.

This argument is simply wrong and is unsupported in the law. More importantly, it is contrary to the values of a free and independent press. If one accepted the university's legal theory, public school administrators (and other government officials as well) could censor simply by camouflaging their motivation under amorphous concerns over "journalistic quality." The government could punish journalists and ban any speech it wanted as long as it claimed its actions were based on objections to the "general quality" of the publication and not to individual stories.

What is most unfathomable about the situation is that a university journalism program as outstanding as Kansas State's would take this position and argue it before a court of law. 

These actions have had a chilling effect on students at the university and will continue to do so until the university administration makes amends. No future editors will feel safe in covering controversial issues knowing that their choices could result in the removal of their adviser. KSU is effectively advocating the end of college press freedom.The Student Press Law Center implores the administration at Kansas State to drop its legal argument, settle this lawsuit and return Johnson to his position as adviser.

Fall 2004, reports