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Show the Love: SPJ’s Campus Media Statement Program

The Society of Professional Journalists is asking college administrators to show their love for a free student press by taking a vow that includes these three magic words: “designated public forum.”

Those words are the key part of SPJ’s College Media Statement Program, an effort to get college administrators to agree that their college will not control the content of student media. The statement also makes it clear that colleges and universities cannot punish faculty advisers for the content of student media.

The statement

“Student media are designated public forums, and free from censorship and advance approval of content. Because content and funding are unrelated, and because the role of adviser does not include advance review of content, student media are free to develop editorial policies and news coverage with the understanding that students and student organizations speak only for themselves. Administrators, faculty, staff or other agents shall not consider the student media’s content when making decisions regarding the media’s funding or faculty adviser.”

The program is a response to censorship attempts by universities and colleges across the country, but it was prompted by a recent court battle in Illinois. In that case, Hosty v. Carter, a federal appellate court left open the possibility that college administrators could control student media in much the same way that high school administrators control expression in high school. The appellate court’s decision in Hosty applies only to public colleges and universities in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, but some free-speech advocates became concerned that the ruling would encourage censorship attempts at colleges and universities throughout the country.

One group of free-speech advocates that reacted with a plan was the Student Press Law Center In September 2005, the SPLC urged student journalists at colleges and universities in the affected states to have their student media officially declared as “designated public forums” by school administrators. SPLC officials said the formal declaration would help protect student media from censorship because the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled in 1988 (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier) that high school publications have strong First Amendment protections if they are recognized as public forums.

Soon after the SPLC announced its program, administrators at Illinois State University became the first to officially declare their student media as designated public forums. A handful of schools have followed ISU’s lead.

Meanwhile, as the SPLC promoted its plan, the defendants in the Hosty case asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear their appeal. But in February of this year, the Court refused, thereby putting an end to the case and letting the appellate court’s decision stand.

That’s when the Society of Professional Journalists responded with the Media Statement Program. Like the Student Press Law Center, SPJ is urging student journalists to get college and university administrators to sign a statement that officially declares the student media as designated public forums. But SPJ is asking that colleges and universities throughout the United States sign on. And the organization is asking its student chapters to lead the effort.

The program has begun slowly, but as news of the effort spreads, we’re hoping that college administrators will see this as a chance to support their student journalists. And we plan on posting a list of schools that commit to a free student press. That way we will be doing our part to share the “love.”

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