Friday, October 10, 2014

Today's civics lesson: Sorority did not 'infringe' on college newspaper's 'First Amendment Rights'

The Chicago Tribune reports this morning that five members of an Elmhurst College sorority are in trouble with school authorities for swiping 800 copies of the Elmhurst College Leader (over half of the paper's bi-weekly 1500-issue press run) and dumping the pilfered papers in trash cans and compost bins around campus.

According to Annemarie Mannion's Tribune story, the Rho Theta chapter of the Phi Mu sorority had been investigated by the national organization because of hazing allegations. The national determined, and the Leader reported, that the hazing allegations were unfounded but, according to the Mannion's account, quoting Desiree Chen, a college spokeswoman, "I guess they were still upset about it."

The editor of the college paper, Zachary Bishop, is quoted in Mannion's story as well, as saying he was saddened "to see our work tossed out just because a couple of people didn't like what we wrote."

But Bishop also said, "It seems like they were trying to censor us, and they infringed on our First Amendment Right of Freedom of the Press." And the college spokesperson, Ms. Chen, is also quoted as saying, "This was an attack on [the newspaper's] First Amendment rights. They were right to protest it."

And thus we see the need for a civics lesson. Because the editor and the school spokesperson could not be more mistaken.

The First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...." The First Amendment has been recognized as expressly applicable to the states through the due process clause of the 14th Amendment since at least Near v. Minnesota, 283 U.S. 697, 51 S.Ct. 625, 75 L. Ed. 1357 (1931). Therefore, unless the five sorority girls who allegedly swiped the newspapers can be somehow made into agents of the government (government actors), they did not violate the newspaper's First Amendment Rights.

Young Mr. Bishop also said the sorority girls were out to "censor us."

But, again, this is not so. The City of Chicago used to censor films shown within the City limits. The FCC censors what may be seen or said on prime-time TV. To be a censor one must have legal or at least de facto authority to determine what other people may see or read or hear. The sorority girls were presumably not authorized by anyone, other than themselves or possibly other members of their sorority (Mannion reports that another investigation is underway), to swipe the newspapers.

If the girls are guilty of swiping the newspapers as alleged, they are not censors. They are thieves. Vandals, perhaps. They may be guilty of converting the school newspaper's property. And it was a dumb and stupid thing to do, besides.

College students (and college spokespersons) and, certainly, newspaper reporters should know the difference between censorship and 'infringing' someone's First Amendment rights and theft. And the rest of us should as well.

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