The Modern University Campus: An Unsafe Space for the Student Press?

By Patrick Malone

Abstract

Freedom of speech, guaranteed in the First Amendment, is among the most highly regarded and vigorously defended constitutional protections. Despite this revered foundational tenet, the freedom of the university student press is in jeopardy of succumbing to unwarranted censorship. This is due to the misconception that the First Amendment only protects speech deemed inoffensive to all segments of the student body. As student campus publications have increasingly been forced to turn to universities for funding, university administrators and student governments have used the power of the purse to usurp editorial control of content from students in an effort to rid their campuses of speech that may be perceived as harassing, inflammatory, or insensitive.

Schools have curbed editorial freedom against an unsettled legal backdrop, as courts have afforded varying degrees of First Amendment protection to printed speech on university campuses where a publication receives funding from the school. Additionally, universities have been left with the unenviable task of interpreting and implementing confusing, ambiguous, and sometimes conflicting federal court opinions, Title IX guidance documents, and federal and state statutes, and in notable examples, universities have failed to balance the student publication’s rights of free speech and press with their own institutional interests.

This Note summarizes how courts have interpreted the First Amendment’s application to student publications on university campuses. It then considers the evolution of Title IX and how it has affected students’ First Amendment rights. Additionally, it acknowledges the interests at stake on the part of student publications and broader campus communities. Ultimately, this Note argues that the Department of Education should issue updated guidance that ensures adequate First Amendment protections for students and their publications. It also proposes steps that actors can take on university campuses to support this effort.