Contacts: Al Cross, SPJ President-Elect, 502/875-5136 ext. 14 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Ian Marquand, SPJ Freedom of Information Committee chairman, 406/542-4400 or email@example.com
INDIANAPOLIS — A key campus censorship battle finally ended this week as Kentucky State University and two former students settled their lawsuit over the university’s confiscation of the 1993-94 yearbook.
Following their victory in federal court — aided by the Society of Professional Journalists — student plaintiffs Charles Kincaid and Capri Coffer agreed Wednesday to a settlement that includes $5,000 each, $60,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs, and release and distribution of the confiscated Thorobred yearbooks.
"This ends a crucial legal battle for press freedom on college campuses and is a complete victory for those of us who battle for freedom of information," said Al Cross, SPJ president-elect and political writer and columnist for The (Louisville) Courier-Journal.
The Society supported the legal efforts of Bruce Orwin and Winter Huff, lawyers from Somerset, Ky., who represented the former KSU students in the case. The SPJ board of directors approved a $4,000 Legal Defense Fund grant to help fund the case. It is the largest LDF grant awarded in recent years. Any grant larger than $1,000 requires approval by the 23-member board.
"We’re glad that we finally won," Orwin said, "and we’re sorry it took so long to get to this point."
On Thursday, the Kentucky lawyers reimbursed the SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund. They obtained the money from the university as part of the settlement.
"We owe a special debt of gratitude to Bruce Orwin and Winter Huff, who not only handled this case free of charge but thought enough of the Legal Defense Fund to get it reimbursed, indirectly, by the university," Cross said.
This week’s settlement followed Kentucky State’s decision not to appeal a federal court’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. Without the settlement, the district court judge who originally ruled for the university and against the students would have reviewed the case to determine damages and attorneys’ fees. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled Jan. 5 that Kentucky State officials had no right to confiscate and censor about 2,000 copies of the yearbook.
Had the court not reversed the district court and a 2-1 ruling of a three-judge panel, the case could have had far-reaching implications for college journalists, allowing broad and unrestricted authority for administrators to censor students’ materials.
"I’m glad this case has come to an end. I applaud the University’s decision to not pursue it any further," said Ian Marquand, Freedom of Information chairman and special projects coordinator for KPAX TV in Montana. "And now, when I praise the perseverance and courage of Capri Coffer, Charles Kincaid , Bruce Orwin and Winter Huff, I also can thank them for their generosity in contributing back to the Legal Defense Fund. They’ve helped make other difficult legal battles possible."
The Kincaid vs. Gibson case began when Kentucky State officials confiscated the student yearbooks after they were published. School officials said they didn’t approve of the content or the yearbook’s purple cover, which was not a school color. University officials said their actions were justified because the books failed to meet Kentucky State standards, but the federal court ruled against the university’s censorship.
The Society’s Legal Defense Fund helps fund court battles across the country to secure First Amendment rights. The Fund also has supported state Freedom of Information hotlines, computer bulletin boards and organizations that resolve First Amendment conflicts before they require costly litigation.
For more information about the Society’s Legal Defense Fund, contact LDF Chairwoman Christine Tatum at 312/222-5184 or firstname.lastname@example.org
To learn more background on the case or view sample pages of the yearbook that Kentucky State officials confiscated, visit the Student Press Law Center’s Web site.