CHICAGO _ The U.S. Supreme Court declined on Tuesday to hear an appeal from former student journalists at Governors State University, letting stand a lower court ruling that could allow college administrators to censor student publications.
The case was on appeal from three students who sued in January 2001 when a dean blocked the paper from being printed after several stories critical of the university administration appeared. Patricia Carter, the dean of student affairs, told the printing company not to print the Innovator before she reviewed and approved it, according to court documents.
The paper, founded in 1971 and supported by student fees, hasn't been published since.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 7-4 in June that Carter should not be held liable for her decision because of "unconstitutional uncertainties," meaning that case law was murky enough that she couldn't be expected to know what was legally permissible. The university is located in University Park, Ill.
But the appeals court also found that Governors State administrators had a right to regulate the paper's contents because it was published under the auspices of the university, a ruling that some fear could limit what college students publish. The court relied in part on a 1988 Supreme Court decision that allows high school administrators to censor student publications.
The Governors State case, Hosty v. Carter, involved Innovator former editors Margaret Hosty and Jeni Porche, and former staff reporter Steven Barba, who sued the university, its board of trustees and three administrators for more than $1.15 million. All defendants except for Carter were later dropped from the suit.
The appeals court decision applies to public college newspapers in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.
"The (Supreme Court) denial is a huge lose for student rights and freedom of the campus press," said John Wilson, who has advised the student plaintiffs and is the former coordinator of the Independent Press Association's Campus Journalism Project. "It will have a very intimidating effect on student newspapers."
Wilson and others also said they fear that the decision could expand to other student groups, with the door open for university administrators to restrict controversial speakers or events.
"(If) it is the little student organization that wants to bring a controversial speaker or show a controversial film, it could find itself being censored more quickly as a result of this ruling," said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, which filed a brief on behalf of the former student journalists.
Goodman said there are efforts under way to get every public university president in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin to sign a statement that student publications on their campuses are editorially independent.
The Illinois attorney general's office, which defended Carter, on Tuesday played down the possible implications on college students' press freedoms.
"The attorney general is very pleased the Supreme Court allowed the 7th Circuit's decision to stand without further review," said Solicitor General Gary Feinerman. "Because the relevant First Amendment law was not clearly established at the time Dean Carter did what she was alleged to have done, the 7th Circuit correctly held that she was immune from personal damages liability."
Three amicus briefs _ from student and professional media groups, journalism educators and civil rights organizations _ were filed in support of the students.