Welcome to the Roundtable, a forum for incisive commentary and analysis
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
By Nicholas Parsons
Nicholas Parsons is a junior at the University of Pennsylvania studying philosophy, politics, and economics.
As a means of highlighting positive events as well as a method of exposing wrongdoings, the press is a necessity. National and regional press here in America can operate independently of broader organizations or interest groups, allowing them to write freely. When it comes to college press, however, newspapers can be seen as representing or operating under a university, which makes the issue of independence more tricky.
States differ in their regulations on student press. In some, like California and several surrounding states, college students have several protections against censorship as well as free-expression protections for student journalists. Other states, like Florida and Texas, are currently in the process of gaining these protections. In Pennsylvania, however, neither is the case. As such, a college newspaper’s independence is not always guaranteed, and the student journalists themselves are not always protected from school interference. 
The precedent of press censorship in schools is said to have begun with the Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court case in 1988. In this case, high school students reported on two topics of personal significance: divorce and teen pregnancy. The school principal deemed that the anonymity of the individuals referred to in the article was not adequately protected even with their names redacted. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school principal’s decision to remove these articles from the end-of-year journal. This sparked a new debate on the independence of school newspapers, both in public schools and in colleges.  
After this case, censorship of student-run newspapers was implicitly allowed, and this precedent continues today in states like Pennsylvania. In colleges in particular, there are several ways in which the press is censored.
For one, student governments can threaten to take away the student newspaper’s funding due to its content.  This goes against the idea of free-expression, a protection that currently is, unfortunately, not universally maintained.  One of the most prominent examples of this occurring recently was at Wesleyan University in 2016. After The Wesleyan Argus published a contentious opinion article in opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, Wesleyan’s student government threatened to withdraw funds from the paper. When accused of basing this threat solely on their disagreement with the content of the newspaper, the student government countered by stating it was actually against the fact that the Argus was drawing extensive funds from donations. As stated by the paper’s editors, the donations were gathered to prevent the newspaper’s independence from becoming suddenly compromised. “Ironically,” the editors wrote, “it is the presence of this emergency money that is now being used as the pretext for the withdrawal of WSA-approved funding.” 
This same issue occurred at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown in early 2017. Their student government took issue with the fact that a student-run newspaper called The Advocate was posting about “students’ citations for alleged law violations.” The student government attempted to remove funding for the newspaper by petitioning the student body. Although The Advocate’s methods can be perceived as contentious, the student government here impinges on the independence of the newspaper by threatening to withdraw funds in order to censor the content. 
Other obstacles can impede a college newspaper’s independence. One such way is when a university removes an adviser from a newspaper’s leadership as an intimidation tactic. Several other illegal or unconstitutional approaches are sometimes taken. These can include the theft of newspapers to prevent its publication, as well as the forced review or prohibition of certain articles or subjects in a newspaper. 
Some college newspapers can get around these obstacles by operating as nonprofit organizations, funded independently of student governments. However, college newspapers should not have to resort to this, just because a rather ambiguous court case brought forth an unspoken allowance of acts of censorship. It is important that protections be put in place in the future, to enable all university student news publications to once again be guaranteed full independence from their institutions, and the student groups within them.
: Strauss, Valerie. "Analysis | What Protections Do Student Journalists Really Have? Check Your State on This Map." The Washington Post. April 05, 2017. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/04/05/what-protections-do-student-journalists-really-have-check-your-state-on-this-map/?utm_term=.f086884f5c00
: "Facts and Case Summary - Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier." United States Courts. http://www.uscourts.gov/educational-resources/educational-activities/facts-and-case-summary-hazelwood-v-kuhlmeier.
: "Student Press." FIRE. https://www.thefire.org/resources/student-press/.
: "Wesleyan Student Government Revokes Student Newspaper's Funds." SPLC. http://www.splc.org/article/2016/03/wesleyan-argus-funding-revoked.
: Zhang, Peijia. "Student President Receives Petition Attempting to Withhold Paper Funds." The Advocate. https://www.upj-advocate.com/news/2017/03/22/student-president-receives-petition-attempting-to-withhold-paper-funds/.
Flickr User: Judy van der Velden
The opinions and views expressed through this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
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