First Amendment Flogging or Flubbing?: College Censors Student News Story About Supreme Court Chief Justice

Last week, officials at Portland’s Lewis & Clark College told a student editor his news story— a “glowing account” of a campus visit by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts– could not be published until the high court’s press office vetted it and said it was OK.

Hmm.  Yeah, not so much.  Supreme Court public information director Kathleen Arberg: “We do coordinate with organizations hosting a justice by reviewing drafts of promotional materials.  But we do not ask to review news coverage.”  Or as the Oregonian noted about the larger irony of such a hypothetical arrangement, “It would be striking for the Supreme Court office to insist on prior review, since the court itself has ruled it is unconstitutional for government to stop publication of a news article.”

Pioneer Log sports editor Anthony Ruiz wrote the temporarily censored story.  The 600-word write-up recounts an environmental moot court competition happily presided over by Roberts, who also put in surprise appearances at three Lewis & Clark law classes.  Ruiz’s take on the censorship: “My gut was telling me it was wrong.  I did some research, and quickly found out that the Supreme Court, very simply, cannot do that.”

Alas, by the time hackles and complaints were raised, and publication clearance ultimately given, the Pioneer Log’s weekly deadline had passed.  So Ruiz’s story, now online, did not run in the regular print edition.

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So is it eye-gougingly improper censorship corrected only after student complaints and PR concerns?  Or was it honest confusion and overzealousness on the part of administrators aiming to cover their bases surrounding “an extraordinary event for the small college”?

According to the Oregonian, Law School Dean Robert Klonoff “assumed, based on the Supreme Court office’s reviews of other school-generated materials about the event, that the office wanted to check for small things in the story, such as correct titles.  He said he regrets sending the story, didn’t know the paper was missing its deadline, and is sorry it did.  ‘The last thing in the world I would ever want to do is censor a student paper or exercise any sort of substantive review over what the students had written,’ he said.  ‘I believe firmly in the First Amendment, and I know the Supreme Court does as well.'”

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