Censorship and You: The News is Not All Bad

I remember how mad I was when I discovered that my high school had decided some of the pictures in our yearbook were inappropriate and sacked them minutes before the proofs were to go to press. I can only imagine how I would have felt if my university had completely confiscated all of our yearbooks, and eight years later I was still fighting in court to get them back like the Alumnus of Kentucky State University (KSU).

"There is little if any difference between hiding from public view the words and pictures students use to portray their college experience, and forcing students to publish a state-sponsored script."
When the eagerly awaited copies of the Thorobred Yearbook Destinations Unknown were delivered, they were deemed "unsuitable" and locked away in a university supply closet. Destinations Unknown could have been as little more than a fire hazard with the wrong color on its cover and a title school administrators had deemed too obscure, had several students and a student advisor not taken action. Laura Cullen, the student publications advisor, noticed that she been getting more frequent requests to make significant changes to the publications that she oversaw. After she was transferred to another department on the same day the yearbooks were snatched up -- she knew it was time to work with her students to change something.

Here is where Judge R. Guy Cole, who presided over the case had to say: "There is little if any difference between hiding from public view the words and pictures students use to portray their college experience, and forcing students to publish a state-sponsored script." That dangerous situation is exactly why an appeals court voted 10-3 that KSU officials had acted in violation of the First Amendment. That decision overturned a lower court's earlier verdict that had ruled in favor of the university. The courts message was what people like Mark Goodman, Executive Director, of the Student Press Law Center, were looking for. In a recent phone interview, Goodman said: "There is a growing inclination among college administrators to censor the press -- any decision for KSU could subject student press to increased pressures to submit to such censorship."

What is most disturbing about the way in which KSU officials handled the case is the drastic manner in which they sought to rectify the problems they perceived with Destinations Unknown. There is little indication that they were interested in the yearbook before its publication, and they offered comment on the quality of the yearbook only after it had been returned from the printers -- once they knew that nothing could be done about any suggestions they might have had. Furthermore the problems they found were extremely minor and did not reflect poorly on the university or the administration; they simply reflected the tastes of the President, and the Vice President for Student Affairs. Even the judges of the Sixth Circuit were surprised." The universitys confiscation of the yearbooks was anything but reasonable," they stated. "Rather, it was a rash, arbitrary act, wholly out of proportion to the situation it was allegedly intended to address."

"The front lines of true journalism have moved back to the independent media and the college presses."
The Kincaid v. Gibson case is important. Once the courts say that a university can take away a yearbook because they dont like the color of the cover (it was purple, KSU's colors are green and gold), or because the photos all need captions, or because they dont like the title, a dangerous pattern of violation could emerge. Important writing and creative expression could be censored, causing dangerous precedents.

Unlike high school students, who are routinely denied constitutional rights ("Open that locker please!"); students at the university level can expect a greater level of protection for their civil rights. Why? The main reason is that college kids arent kids at all -- theyre "legal adults." (I should say "over 18", because even though the army will teach to you fire a 50mm canon, youd still better keep your hands off that beer.) Once you're 18 the government cant use puritanical ideas about morality to censor what you see, or at least we still have grounds to fight them in this country when they do.

The dilution of press by corporate interests, as well as the drain of qualified and talented journalists into the field of public relations, has moved the front lines of true journalism back to the independent media and the college press. With journalists at private universities subject to their schools every whim, public universities should be utilized as a place where real stories by real journalists can be published. Had the original decision of the court stood, one which was based upon a precedent set by a high school censorship case (Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier), it would have destroyed what is left of balanced media on American college campuses.

Students around the country should take this judgment against KSU as a call to action, a reason to rally with other students to for support from the adults in their lives in the ongoing battle to keep decision-making power about the quality and content of student media where it belongs: the hands of the students.

Read the original press release

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