Important College Press Cases

The list below was compiled by James Tidwell and Dave Reid of Eastern Illinois University, and is shared here for general reference.

Below are summaries of the most important of the state and federal court decisions rendered over the last
four decades in cases directly involving censorship of the college and university press. The decisions have been
almost unanimous in their support of editorial freedom and autonomy of student editors of student publications
on public campuses.

Dickey v. Alabama State Board of Education, 273 F. Supp. 613 (M.D. Ala. 1967)

This case was the first instance of a court’s recognizing the First Amendment rights of college journalists.
Gary Dickey, the editor of the student newspaper at Troy State University, printed the word “censored” in place of
an editorial he was ordered to run by his adviser and the school president.

The editorial he wanted to run was critical of the governor and the state legislature.  However, the
university had a rule prohibiting criticism of state officials.

When Dickey ran the word “censored” instead of a suggested substitute story about “Raising Dogs in
North Carolina,” the president suspended Dickey from the university for “insubordination.”

A U.S. District Court in Alabama ordered Dickey reinstated as a student, ruling that the college not punish
him for exercising his constitutional rights of free expression.  The court said the rule against criticism of state
officials was “unreasonable” and was not relevant to the “maintenance of order and discipline” on campus.

Antonelli v. Hammond, 308 F. Supp. 1329 (D. Mass. 1969)

The editor of the student newspaper at Fitchburg (Mass.) State College sued the college president for
violating his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.  He claimed the president was censoring the material for
publication by subjecting it to prior approval of faculty advisory committee and by refusing to release the money
to pay for a particular issue because he disagreed with its content.

The court ruled in favor of the student.  It said administrators can not censor expression they dislike.

Trujillo v. Love, 322 F. Supp. 1266 (D. Colo. 1971)

The managing editor of the student newspaper at Southern Colorado State University was suspended from
her position after censorship disagreements with the paper’s faculty adviser.  She brought suit claiming her First
Amendment rights were violated.

The court ruled in the student’s favor and ordered her reinstated as managing editor.   It found the student
newspaper was a public forum for student expression, and even though the university paid for the publication,
officials could not place limitations upon the use of that forum where those limitations interfered with protected
speech and were not justified by an overriding state interest.  “The state is not necessarily the unfettered master of
all it creates,” the court said.

Bazaar v. Fortune, 489 F.2d 225 (5th Cir. 1973), cert. denied 414 U.S. 1135  (1973)

This decision enunciated early judicial doctrines that are now well established in college press case law.
The court found (1) That the fact that the University of Mississippi, a state school, provided funding, faculty or
departmental advice, or campus facilities did not authorize university officials to censor the content of a student
publication (in this case  a literary magazine); (2) that individual four-letter words were insufficient reasons to
censor; (3) that the university could not be considered the same as a private publisher with absolute arbitrary
powers to decide what could be printed; (4) that the university, as an arm of the state, could not make private
publisher decisions about content and had infringed upon the free press rights of the students when it denied
distribution rights to an issue of the magazine that contained articles about interracial love and Black pride; and
(5) that the university could not be held liable for the content of student publications.

Joyner v. Whiting, 447 F.2d 456 (4th Cir. 1973)

A federal appellate court ruled that a state university can not withdraw funding from a campus newspaper
even when the newspaper editorializes in favor of racial segregation contrary to the Fourteenth Amendment and
the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The president of North Carolina Central University had withdrawn funding from the paper and thus
violated the First Amendment free press guarantees of students in a predominantly black college who editorialized
against integrating white students into the university.

The court found that the proper remedy against censorship is restraint of the censor, not suppression of the
press.   It ruled that a state college could not impose censorship by asserting any form of censorial oversight,
including attempts to exercise financial controls over a student publication because of its editorial stance.

Papish v. Board of Curators of the University of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667 (1973)

Barbara Papish, a graduate student at the University of Missouri, distributed on campus an underground
newspaper that included a reprint of a political cartoon depicting policemen raping the Statue of Liberty and the
Goddess of Justice.  The newspaper also contained several four-letter words. Papish was expelled from the
university for distributing a newspaper “containing forms of indecent speech.”

The U.S. Supreme Court reversed and ordered her reinstatement because the university’s actions was not
justified as a non-discriminatory application of reasonable rules governing conduct. “The mere dissemination of
ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name
alone of ‘conventions of decency,’” the court said.  It noted that the material in the newspaper was not
constitutionally obscene or otherwise unprotected.

Schiff v. Williams, 519 F.2d 257 (5th Cir. 1975)

Three editors of the student newspaper at Florida Atlantic University were removed from their positions by
the university president because of his perception of the quality of the paper, including poor grammar and
spelling, “vilification and rumor mongering” and editorials that were “immature and unsophisticated diatribes.”
They filed a lawsuit against the president, and the court ordered the reinstatement of the editors.  The
court noted that none of the complaints raised by the president overcame the First Amendment rights of the
student editors to make their own content decisions without school interference.

Mississippi Gay Alliance v. Goudelock, 536 F.2d 1073 (5th Cir. 1976), cert. denied 430 U.S. 982 (1977)

The student editor of the Mississippi State University newspaper refused to run an advertisement from a
campus gay organization.  The organization sued, asking that the newspaper be forced to run its ad.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the right of the student editor to make an editorial judgment on
the choice of materials to go into the newspaper.  It said the editor’s refusal to run the advertisement was not
government action, and therefore the First Amendment prohibited judicial interference with the decision of an
editor.

Kania v. Fordham, 702 F.2d 475 (4th Cir. 1983)

Several students at the University of North Carolina sued, claiming mandatory student fees that went to
support the campus newspaper violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.   Through the fees, the state
was forcing them to subsidize a publication even though they disagree with many of its editorial positions, they
said.

The court ruled against the students, saying their constitutional rights were only minimally and indirectly
restricted by the funding scheme and that the newspaper increased the overall exchange of information, ideas and
opinion on campus.  The court also said the university could not compel the student newspaper to provide equal
access to those disagreeing with its editorial positions without running afoul of the constitution.

Milliner v. Turner, 436 So. 2d 1300 (La. App. 1983)

Two faculty members of Southern University of New Orleans sued three editors of the school’s newspaper
for libel when they were described as a “proven fool” and “racist” in editorials.   The students asked that the
university be joined as a party to the suit.  A trial court found both the student editors and the school responsible
for libel.

The school appealed, claiming it could not be held responsible for the actions of its students.  The state
appellate court agreed.  “The choice of the content of material to go into the paper is an exercise of editorial
control and judgment, and regulation of this crucial process (by school officials) would be inconsistent with the
First Amendment guarantees of free press,” the court said.  The First Amendment barred the school from anything
other than advisory control over the student newspaper, so the school was exempt from any liability for the
newspaper’s libels.

Stanley v. Magrath, 719 F.2d 279 (8th Cir. 1983)

This decision developed a legal doctrine authorizing analysis of the motivation of university administrators
who had moved to restrict university funding of a student newspaper. Previously, it had been relatively easy for
administrators to contend fund reductions were not made to control or punish editorial content, an argument
difficult to refute until courts began to allow as evidence attacks made by administrators and trustees on
publication content.

After just such attacks on the University of Minnesota’s student daily over a spoof issue, the federal court
ruled that an ensuing change in the paper’s student fee support structure, which was authorized by university
trustees and which threatened to reduce the paper’s financial support, was an unconstitutional attempt to punish
the newspaper.

Sinn v. The Daily Nebraskan, 829 F.2d 662 (8th Cir. 1987), aff’g 638 F. Supp 143 (D. Neb. 1986)

Two individuals in the University of Nebraska community sought to place in the school’s newspaper
advertisements seeking roommates and noting their sexual orientation.  The editor rejected the ads, saying they
suggested an intent to discriminate against individuals who were not gay or lesbian.

The potential advertisers sued the student newspaper, the University of Nebraska and other school
officials, claiming that the rejection of their ads by the state-funded student newspaper was an infringement of
their First Amendment rights.

Two federal courts disagreed, holding that the First Amendment protects only against actions of state
actors, those acting under the authority of the government.  The court concluded that the student editor made the
decision to reject the ads in question without any pressure from school officials or the school’s publications
board. Since the student editor made the decision there was no “state action,” the court concluded, and the
advertisers’ First Amendment rights were not infringed.

Leuth v. St. Clair County Comm. College, 732 F.  Supp. 1410 (E.D. Mich. 1990)

The court struck down the college’s banning of an advertisement for a Canadian nude dancing club.  The
court said the newspaper was a public forum and distinguished it from Hazelwood.

The paper is not a “laboratory situation” but is a student administered activity; paper is not created under
the direction of faculty member, but is operated entirely by student participants, particularly the Editor-In-Chief;
paper is freely distributed throughout the local community and seeks outside advertisers to aid in the funding of
the paper’s publication.

Rosenberger v. University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819 (1995)

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled the University of Virginia’s refusal to fund a religious-oriented newspaper
published by a student group violated the First Amendment. The Court said that government may not regulate
speech based on the substantive content of the message it conveys and that is exactly what the university was
doing.

It denied funds to the newspaper because it “promoted a particular belief in or about a deity or an ultimate
reality.” The Court rejected UVA’s argument that funding the newspaper would violate the establishment of
religion clause of the First Amendment. Viewpoint-based discrimination is not proper, the Court said, when the
university expends funds to encourage a diversity of views from private speakers. Providing funding is the same as
providing facilities.

Leeds v. Meltz, 85 F.3d 51 (2d Cir., 1996)

In reaffirming Sinn v. Daily Nebraskan and Mississippi Gay Alliance v. Goudelock, the U.S. Court of
Appeals for the Second Circuit, ruled that when student editors of a public college or university use editorial
judgment and reject a paid advertisement, no “state action” has occurred.

Thus, the court upheld the dismissal of an action brought by the plaintiff whose ad was rejected by the
City University of New York Law School. The court noted that the university had expressly disclaimed any right to
control student publications that were financed with student activity fees.

“Extensive regulation and public funding, either alone or taken together,” the court said, “will not
transform a private actor into a state actor; instead, the state must have exerted its coercive power, or provided
significant encouragement to the defendant before the latter will be deemed a state actor.”

Bd. of Regents of the University of Wisconsin v. Southworth, 529 U.S. 217 (2000)

A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory student fees are constitutional as long as the
distribution mechanism is viewpoint-neutral.

The court rejected the argument of Christian and conservative students at the University of Wisconsin at
Madison that the university’s fee system violated the First Amendment by forcing them to fund groups they
disagreed with on political, religious or ideological grounds. Although the case did not involve funding for a
mainstream student newspaper, many believe the court ruling will effect campus news organizations.

“The First Amendment permits a public university to charge its students an activity fee used to fund a
program to facilitate extracurricular student speech if the program is viewpoint neutral,” said the court.
The court cited the clear interest of the university in promoting the exchange of ideas. Although the fee-
allocation program inevitably subsidizes speech with which some students disagree, the justices said a court-
imposed system allowing students to opt out of contributing to groups they oppose “could be so disruptive and
expensive that the program to support extracurricular speech would be ineffective. The First Amendment does not
require the University to put the program at risk.”

Kincaid v. Gibson, 236 F.3d 342 (6th Cir. 2001) (en banc)

Students challenged the confiscation of the student yearbook at Kentucky State University by university
officials upset with the yearbook’s “quality.” The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky granted
officials’ motions to dismiss and for summary judgment, citing the U.S. Supreme Courts decision in Hazelwood
School District v. Kuhlmeier. The students appealed.

A panel of the Court of Appeals, 191 F.3d 719, affirmed. Petition for hearing en banc was granted. The en
banc panel of the Court of Appeals by a 10-3 vote held that: (1) the yearbook was a limited public forum for First
Amendment purposes; (2) university officials did not impose reasonable time, place and manner restriction upon
speech in a limited public forum by confiscating all copies of the yearbook; (3) the Hazelwood case did not
apply; and (4) officials conduct violated the First Amendment, even if the yearbook was not considered a public
forum.

“We will not sanction a reading of the First Amendment that permits government officials to censor
expression in a limited public form in order to coerce speech that pleases the government,” the majority opinion
stated.

Hosty v. Carter, 412 F3d 731 (7th Cir 2005) (en banc), cert denied 546 U.S. 1169 (2006)

In a 7-4 decision the court ruled that the dean of students at Governor’s State University in Illinois was not
personally liable for monetary damages after she told the printer of the student newspaper not to print any issues
that she had not reviewed and approved in advance.

The court ruled that the dean was entitled to “qualified immunity.” This principle protects government
officials from monetary damage awards unless they knew or should have known at the time that their actions
were unlawful.

“Public officials need not predict, at their financial peril, how constitutional uncertainties will be
resolved,” stated the opinion. “Disputes about both law and fact make it inappropriate to say that any reasonable
person in Dean Carter’s position in November 2000 had to know that the demand for review before the
University would pay (the newspaper’s) printing bill violated the First Amendment.”

The court also stated that Hazelwood is the appropriate standard to apply to college publications that are
not public forums.

2 thoughts on “Important College Press Cases

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