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Society Helps University Yearbook Win Case Against Censorship


Contacts: Christine Tatum, SPJ Legal Defense Fund chairwoman, 312/222-5184 or ctatum@tribune.com; Ray Marcano, SPJ president, 937/225-2323 or rmarcano@spj.org.

INDIANAPOLIS — The Society of Professional Journalists helped secure press freedom for college journalists nationwide by working to convince a federal appellate court that free-speech restrictions applied to high school students have no business on college campuses.

The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled today in the Kincaid vs. Gibson lawsuit that Kentucky State University officials had no right to confiscate and censor about 2,000 copies of the university’s 1993-94 yearbook, The Thorobred.

"This is clearly a major victory for those who fight for free speech and against censorship attempts," said Ray Marcano, SPJ president and regional editor at the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News. "The court has sent a very strong message to all those who would even consider prohibiting publication of materials simply because they don’t like them. Now, students who face similar circumstances have a court victory they can point to, and they can always point to SPJ as an organization that will assist them."

The Society supported the legal efforts of Kentucky lawyers Bruce Orwin and Winter Huff, who represented Kentucky State students in the case. The SPJ board of directors in early 2000 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.

"Many thanks to SPJ for their support of students Charles Kincaid and Capri Coffer in their efforts," Orwin said. "SPJ’s financial contribution paid the substantial cost of having the record on appeal prepared. Without the assistance of SPJ, the two student plaintiffs could not have afforded to pay the court cost necessary to make the appeal to the full Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeal to the full court resulted in the court setting aside the opinion of the trial court upholding the confiscation of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky."

Last year, the Society presented Capri Coffer and Charles Kincaid — the two students involved in the case — with national Sunshine Awards. The award recognized extraordinary efforts to keep or make information accessible by the public.

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 message this decision sends is that colleges and universities who thought they might be able to get away with censorship of their student media can’t," said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. "It will persuade some university administrators to rethink their decisions to censor."

Had the court not reversed school officials’ censorship, the case could have had far-reaching implications for college journalists, allowing broad and unrestricted authority for administrators to censor students’ materials.

"This is a very important victory for college journalism," said Christine Tatum, chairwoman of SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund and an employee at Tribune Interactive. "The Sixth Circuit wisely saw through Kentucky State officials’ disgraceful efforts to protect the university’s public image even at the expense of students’ First Amendment rights. By hiding those books, the universitty has done more damage to it reputation than it would have by releasing them."

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 Tatum at 312/222-5184 or ctatum@tribune.com.

For the Student Press Law Center’s analysis of the decision and the complete text of the Sixth Circuit’s ruling, log on to www.splc.org.

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