Letter to the Editor: Court cases protect student journalists


Adviser’s Note: Student writers at The North Wind have received intimidation and pressure not to continue writing stories about the administration. One student was told by a faculty member that if The North Wind continued to write stories the administration didn’t like, the university could cut the newspaper’s funding. The newspaper consulted First Amendment attorney Frank LoMonte at the Student Law Press Center. Below is the op-ed he wrote to explain the protections afforded to student journalists and the consequences of interfering with their First Amendment rights.

Across America, newsrooms are hemorrhaging. They’ve shrunk by 33 percent since the start of the Great Recession, shedding some 19,700 full-time jobs, according to a census by the American Society of News Editors.

Who’s picking up the slack when the public needs information? Increasingly, it’s college students. One out of every eight reporters covering state Capitols is a student, the Pew Research Journalism Project reported in July, and the most acclaimed reporter breaking news from Apple Inc. is a 20-year-old University of Michigan sophomore blogging for 9to5mac.com.

Americans rely on college students more than ever before as their go-to providers of information – which is why it’s essential that college journalists have absolute protection against newsroom interference from campus authorities.

Fortunately, at a public university such as NMU, the First Amendment offers nearly impenetrable protection against any intrusion into student journalists’ news judgments—whether the intrusion is direct or indirect. Firing editors, slashing funding and removing faculty advisers have all been found unconstitutional when the motivation is connected to a publication’s news, opinion or advertising content.

The Supreme Court has been especially protective of freedom of speech on college campuses, which the Court in a landmark 1967 decision called “peculiarly the marketplace for ideas.” In one notable ruling, the Court overturned penalties against a University of Missouri student disciplined for distributing a newsletter that included strong profanity and crude cartoon depictions of sex. And in a 1995 suit against the University of Virginia, the Court ruled that a college can’t withhold funding from a publication just because the administration disagrees with the editors’ ideological perspective.

The lower courts, too, have viewed any restriction on freedom of speech at college— whether direct or indirect—with deep skepticism. Here in Michigan, a U.S. district court forbade Saint Clair County Community College from overruling student editors’ decision to accept a questionably tasteful advertisement from a nude-dancing nightclub.

In that case, a federal judge ruled that college newspapers operated outside the “laboratory class” setting and are “public forums” dedicated to student expression. Once a piece of government property is designated as a “forum,” any restriction on editorial content is presumed to be unconstitutional unless justified by the most compelling reasons.

Of all conceivable justifications for censorship, the most legally and educationally bankrupt one—and yet, the one most commonly reported to the Student Press Law Center—is image control. The use of government authority to silence dissenting viewpoints, or to portray a deceptive public image of a campus where nothing goes wrong, isn’t just illegal—it’s un-American. The entire reason that the First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech and press freedom exist is to facilitate advocacy for the change of government policies.

The fact that a college provides financial support for student media does not justify asserting institutional control over the speakers’ messages. Imagine if the mayor told the public before each city council meeting: “Because the city is paying for the microphone, podium and electricity, you may use the public-comment period only to say favorable things about my administration.” The citizens would, properly, run the mayor out of office before the evening was over.

Government officials may not commandeer the public’s resources for propaganda purposes. If that civic imperative is not deeply understood and honored on the campus of a public university—if dissenting views are not merely tolerated but welcomed, if “making the school look bad” is viewed as a punishable offense—then our universities no longer deserve their status as “the marketplace for ideas.”

Attorney Frank D. LoMonte is executive director of the Student Press Law Center, www.splc.org, a nonprofit source of research about legal issues affecting student journalism. The SPLC offers legal research, information and training in support of the work of student journalists, as well as maintains a network of volunteer referral attorneys serving all 50 states who are happy to assist students on a pro-bono basis if that need arises.