Free Speech Rights On Private College Campuses

The Student Press and Prior Restraint

Some public universities have policies that require all student newspapers to be submitted to an advisor before they are published. Federal (and state) court decisions strongly suggest that this practice is unconstitutional. Furthermore, if these policies give any member of the administration of a public university the right to edit content on the basis of viewpoint -- either explicitly or in practice -- then such policies will almost certainly be struck down in a court of law.

Censors may attempt to justify prepublication review by citing a case discussed previously in this Guide, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988). As you will recall, Hazelwood limited the rights of high school journalism students who printed a school newspaper as part of a journalism class. The Court ruled that, under those circumstances, the school could regulate so-called "school sponsored" speech (the administration acting, in effect, as the publisher) as long as the regulation was related to "reasonable pedagogical concerns." Thus far, however, the courts have not applied Hazelwood to university newspapers, and, indeed, cases decided before Hazelwood already had made it quite clear that prepublication review is impermissible.

FIRE's position is that colleges and universities should never seek editorial control over student newspapers. Further, the law does not allow them to rely on high school procedures to institute college censorship. The attempted application of Hazelwood to colleges is both legally incorrect and morally wrong. Even at private universities, if a school's newspaper is run by students, university officials should neither want nor use the power to review each issue before it goes to print. Student media play an important role in educating and bringing issues to the campus community. Universities that do not allow a free student press deprive the campus community of an important component of the open discussion, debate, and expression that universities exist to foster.