Students' rights at issue in college press freedom cases
Boston — A college newspaper lawsuit that won access to police logs of campus crime has made it easier for these papers to report campus news.
Another suit still in the courts could further loosen the control college administrators have on publication of information in campus papers - especially at private colleges.
Reporters at the Heights, the Boston College student newspaper, last year heard repeatedly of drug raids, rapes, and attempted rapes taking place on campus that the paper's police reporter knew nothing about.
But no word of the crimes turned up in the weekly reports from campus police. The police claimed they didn't have to give the information to the student reporters.
The Heights filed suit against the college last October, and won in late January. Ex-news editor Elise Speranza says that when news of the lawsuit broke she got calls from other student papers with the same problem of access to police records.
In another case still finding its way through the courts, the Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (CLUM) is representing the ''bu exposure,'' an alternative campus paper fighting its fourth year of a lawsuit against Boston University for cutting off its funds. The exposure's lawsuit claims that although BU is an independent school, it is chartered by the state and claims to live in accord with state laws. Therefore, the school should extend the same constitutional rights of free press and free speech as the state.
Associate provost Jon Westling says the university made an explicit policy in the 1960s to not fund the publishing of student newspapers in order to avoid charges of censorship and the possibility of libel charges. He says the exposure has tried to subvert that policy by trying to pass as a newsletter instead of a newspaper in order to get funds.
The Student Press Law Center report for fall 1981 said, ''The exposure case could have far-reaching ramifications since it is among the first in which students at a private university have raised charges of censorship against the administration. Traditionally, the courts have upheld censorship at private institutions.''
New England, and especially Boston, universities seem to be on the cutting edge of the fight for access to information.
Last fall, five Boston University students were charged with trespassing when they refused to leave the BU police station without seeing the police blotter. The charges were dropped and the school agreed to release the police logs after BC lost its lawsuit.
The Boston College breakthrough points up the larger question facing the student press in the 1980s: What are the legitmate First Amendment rights of students at private schools.
''The student press has a problem with legitimacy,'' admits former Heights news editor Speranza. ''Schools are afraid that students don't know what they're doing - and that's often right - and they're afraid of libel suits.'' But records show there have been few libel suits. Administrators ''think the student press is made up of troublemakers; they just don't want to take it seriously,'' says Speranza.
The Heights pegged its legal fight on a 1980 Massachusetts law that requires each police department to ''keep and maintain a daily log'' for the public.
''Getting access to police records is an issue right now at both private and state schools,'' says Christopher Herrling, director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington. ''But the distinction is that students at a private school have no First Amendment rights. Those rights are only guaranteed against infringement by (the government).''
But Michael LeJeune, a Houston lawyer specializing in education law, says private school students can exercise some rights.
''Student rights on a private campus are somewhat less than the would be at a state-supported school . . . because a private business has the right to conduct itself as it sees fit. But a student always has access to the courts (to sue if his rights are violated). And he can always raise such a ruckus that the university will wish it had opened its books.''
The tension between administration control at an independent university and the expectation of free speech and free press is high at Boston University.
The BU Law School newspaper, the Comment, went independent last fall after the law school dean refused to allow a story run about a black student who claimed racial discrimination, says editor Ron Kertzner. Dean William Schwartz said that because the paper was funded by the university, it would be breaking both university rules and the code of professional ethics to use the story, which would be comment on pending litigation.