Tuesday, July 31, 2007

No, not a loss for student journalism

Inside Higher Ed has this poorly conceived headline on a story about a court case by some Kansas Sate journalism students being dismissed:

Loss for the student press

The gist: The K-State students sued to try to overturn the reassignment of a popular journalism professor and adviser to the Kansas State Collegian newspaper by claiming their First Amendment rights were violated. An appeals court ruled that once the students graduated, their complaint was moot because they could suffer no further harm (and no monetary or other damages were requested for any alleged past harm).

It's a poor hed because it plays into the Chicken Little mentality that tends to pervade cases such as this -- thus diluting the argument for when the impact really is wide-ranging and important.

At the appeals level, this was a narrow case. The students had asked for an injunction, a type of legal remedy used to stop the potential for continuing harm to someone or something. Because the potential to harm them ended when they graduated, end of case. (Those suing said a content analysis of the paper that included its coverage of diversity issues was part of a plan to make unconstitutional content-based decisions on the paper's direction. A federal district judge said it was an overall analysis that showed the paper was inferior to similar papers at other campuses.)

I don't see an assault on the First Amendment here, as the students and adviser claimed. Unless the students are being graded on their efforts (nothing in the story indicates they are), they can keep on going and doing what they want, at least if the claims that student editors remain in charge are to be believed. However, that ability is never unfettered, and what I do see, is a good lesson that periodically listening to your audience and your stakeholders -- and doing a frank, systematic review of your publication before the administration does -- might be good ideas.

The erudite comments that follow the Inside Higher Ed story explain why in greater detail.

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