Cast the First Stone

It was two years ago during the Associated Collegiate Press conference that I first heard it.

At a session entitled “The First Amendment and You,” an editor from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, whose name has unfortunately escaped me, uttered the words so eloquently declared by Voltaire:

“Though I may disapprove of what you say, I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

The sentence has since transformed my views on journalism, government and the basic freedoms of speech and of the press.

The founding fathers seemed to have agreed with the ornery Frenchman when they wrote the First Amendment. Not only does it advance democracy, but also it promotes intelligent discourse, the broadening of ideas and education in general.

Some might even say that these are good things.

It is with the deepest concern that I write regarding the June 20, 2005 decision made by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

In Hosty v. Carter, the court, which hears cases from Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin, passed a 7-4 ruling that reversed what had been a lower court victory for three student journalists at Governors State University in Illinois.

In October 2000, students Margaret Hosty, Jeni Porche and Steven Barba sued a university dean, Patricia Carter, after she had ordered a commercial printer not to print another issue of the student newspaper, The Innovator, without administrative approval of its contents before publication.

Yes, this dean of an academic institution wanted prior review over the student newspaper. Why? The paper had recently published several unflattering stories concerning professors, and what it felt was a hostile administration.

It must have been very embarrassing for them.

It probably became worse in April 2003 when a 3-judge panel with the 7th Circuit Court ruled in favor of the students, saying that “Dean Carter’s contention that she could not reasonably have known that it was illegal to order the Innovator’s printer to halt further publication of the newspaper or to require prior approval of the newspaper’s content defies existing, well-established law.”

Unfortunately it did not end there. Illinois Attorney General James Ryan asked the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals to extend the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood decision to public college student media and that is exactly what they did.

In 1988, the Supreme Court decided in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier that high school students have fewer First Amendment rights because they are younger, more emotionally immature, and more likely to be influenced.

What the court essentially found in Hosty v. Carter was that college students have no more right to make editorial decisions without administrative input than high school students.

“It is a sad day for journalism in the United States,” Irwin Gratz, the president of the Society of Professional Journalists said via a press release on June 20. “Students [affected by Hosty] will now spend eight years with prior review and censorship as part of their journalistic experience.”

With all the doubts and problems students have voiced regarding the journalism program at St. John’s, the faculty has proven to be stalwart when it comes to respect for our First Amendment rights.

Though we have an editorial policy set for us by the University forbidding staff editorials that are against the doctrine of the Catholic Church, it is by far a better system then imposing prior review and therefore halting our educational development as journalists.

The last time The Torch dealt with censorship was 1997 when members of the sorority Gamma Chi stole nearly 5,000 copies of the paper after an unfavorable story entitled “Is Gamma Playing Fair?” ran in the paper. The sorority was suspended and fined, though they denied ever stealing the paper.

There is no doubt in my mind that this incident still affects the relationship between The Torch and Greek Life almost nine years later, a problem which we look to further erase this year.

I am grateful that The Torch has avoided a situation similar to what The Innovator has gone through over the past five years.

St. John’s has respected the basic rights of its students, even if they have failed to recognize The Torch as a tool for learning and an avenue for free speech that is a necessity on a college campus.

The Innovator has been absent from the suburban Chicago campus of Governors State University for the past five years, banished by the administration’s demands and lack of academic foresight.

Those who do not view this as a huge disservice to a collegiate community do not know what the First Amendment is.

Hosty, Porche and Barba plan to bring an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Let us hope that they are granted a hearing and that cooler, more democratic heads prevail.

According to the Student Press Law Center, calls for legal advice are up more than four-fold since the Hazelwood ruling in 1988. The results could have been predicted with high school newspapers now turned into the official publication of the school public relations office.

I would like to think that St. John’s University values our education and freedom more than that, especially since the recent national survey conducted by the Knight Foundation found that more than a third of all high school students believe the First Amendment “goes too far” in guaranteeing freedoms.

Wow.

Is this the way that the world will end? Not with a bang but with a whimper?