The Society of Professional Journalists fights for free speech

Should free-speech restrictions applicable to high school students apply to college students as well? The Society of Professional Journalists doesn’t think so. And now, neither does the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.The court ruled on Friday that officials at Kentucky State University were out of line in confiscating and censoring some 2,000 copies of the 1993-94 edition of the Thorobred, the school’s student-produced yearbook.

Officials at KSU confiscated the book in 1994 after expressing concerns about the quality of the book, as well as its purple color scheme, which officials said was not representative of the school’s colors.

Yearbook editors Capri Coffer and Charles Kincaid then sued the university, arguing that the university’s actions were unconstitutional.

In 1997, U.S. District Judge Joseph Hood, citing a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a similar case involving high school students, ruled in favor of the university. Hood pointed to Hazlewood School District v. Kuhlmeier, a case that granted high school officials the right to censor student publications that do not fall in accordance with the school’s educational philosophy.

The decision to apply a high school law to a college publication outraged students around the country, who saw the decision as a threat to what they felt were basic rights.

“It is ludicrous to assume that a 13-year-old is similar in judgment to a 22-year-old college senior,” read an editorial that appeared in the Student, University of Miami at Ohio’s student newspaper. “Moreover, virtually all college students are adults who enjoy inherent rights and responsibilities. Hood has implied that college adults are no more capable than are juveniles.”

Lawyers for the students, with funding from the SPJ, sought last year to reverse the decision. They argued that, contrary to the district court’s opinion, KSU’s status as a public university makes it a public forum, and that students as result are not subject to the same standards of censorship as their high school counterparts.

In his ruling, Judge R. Guy Cole concurred.

“Given KSU’s stated policy and practice with regard to the yearbook, the nature of the yearbook and its compatibility with expressive activity, and the university context in which the yearbook is published, there can be no question that The Thorobred is a journal of expression and communication in the public forum sense,” read the decision.

“The university’s confiscation of this journal of expression was arbitrary and unreasonable. As such, it violated Kincaid’s and Coffer’s First Amendment rights.