American journalism is under attack from all sides -- not always undeservedly. But one front that has some observers particularly worried is a growing trend toward censorship of college media.
This year, an alternative campus newspaper in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, lost funding after student leaders deemed it 'too political.' And in 2002, Vanessa Curry, newspaper adviser at the University of Texas in Tyler, was fired (and later reinstated) after campus reporters too aggressively looked into open records at the school, from administrators' salaries to information about ongoing investigations.
'Universities are supposed to be about diversity of opinion and knowledge,' says James Highland, outgoing vice president of campus chapter affairs for the Society of Professional Journalists. Thus, Highland says, when university administrators are confronted, they usually back off.
But could that change in the era of Hosty v. Carter? The June 20 appeals court ruling dumps onto college media the protection-stripping precedents of 1988's Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier decision, which states that educators 'do not offend the First Amendment' by censoring high school newspapers. If it is likewise widely accepted, Hosty could institutionalize campus censorship nationwide.
Highland isn't really worried, saying censorship issues cycle in and out of history. Nonetheless, he admits that it is a growing problem that SPJ will have to keep battling.
Mike Hiestand, legal consultant at the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Virginia, is less confident. By censoring school newspapers, 'we're telling [young citizens] that the First Amendment really isn't that important,' he says. In fact, that notion has been gaining steam. A Knight Foundation survey of 100,000 American students conducted in 2004 found that more than 33 percent believe First Amendment protections go 'too far,' and half think newspaper stories should be subjected to government clearance.
Outgoing SPJ president Irwin Gratz sides with the worriers. The Hosty decision is 'providing further fodder to the general disrespect that has grown toward journalists,' he says. 'The public will one day come to rue having treated us with so little respect for our independence.'