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Court OK’s Censorship of College Journalists


September 9, 1999

To: Project Sunshine Chairs
From: Ian Marquand, SPJ FOI Chairman
406-542-4400 ian@kpax.com

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled that college journalists may be restrained from publishing material that administrators dislike. The ruling came in a case brought by former editors of the Kentucky State University yearbook, "The Thorobred."

The student editors, Capri Coffer and Charles Kincaid, sued after KSU’s vice-president for student affairs confiscated some 2,000 copies of the 1992-94 edition of the yearbook.

The administrator, Betty Gibson, did not approve of the content and style of the yearbook, including the fact that the cover did not include the school colors of green and gold. The students claimed the confiscation was part of a power struggle over KSU’s student journalism program.

In 1997, a federal district court judge dismissed the suit, ruling that yearbooks are not a public forum deserving First Amendment protection. That decision essentially extended the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 "Hazelwood" decision, which allowed censorship of high school journalists, to colleges.

SPJ filed a brief before the 6th Circuit Court supporting the students’ case, as did the American Civil Liberties Union and the Student Press Law Center.

On Sept. 8, a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit Court ruled two-to-one in favor of the university. The circuit court’s decision directly affects only Kentucky, Tennessee, Ohio and Michigan. The students’ attorney told the Lexington, Ky., Herald Leader that Kincaid and Coffer will appeal the appellate panel's decision to the full court and, if necessary, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a story published Sept. 9, the Herald Leader quoted Mike Hiestand, staff attorney for the Student Press Law Center as saying, "Colleges and universities are all about free speech. We should have the First Amendment up on a pedestal on every college campus. But instead with this decision, we're going in the other direction."

(Contributors to this story included John Cheves, staff writer for the Lexington Herald Leader, and Rachel DuFault, SPJ’s Pulliam-Kilgore intern, who wrote about the KSU case for the September Quill.)

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