ACLU Tells Virginia Tech That Censorship of Student Newspaper Violates Freedom of the Press

School’s Commission on Student Affairs has threatened to cut funding of The Collegiate Times if it continues to allow anonymous online comments

Blacksburg, VA – The ACLU of Virginia today informed the Virginia Tech Commission on Student Affairs that it will violate the First Amendment right to freedom of the press if it removes support from the university’s student newspaper, The Collegiate Times, because it allows online contributors to post anonymous comments that are sometimes offensive.

According to news sources, the Commission on Student Affairs notified The Collegiate Times earlier this week that it would remove $70,000 in university funding from the newspaper, require them to move out of free office space provided by the university, and disrupt advertising revenues if the newspaper continues to allow the anonymous postings.

“There is a long cultural and legal tradition of opinionated, anonymous speech in the United States and sometimes it is not pleasant to hear or read,” said ACLU of Virginia Executive Director Kent Willis.  “But we have learned that censorship is far more dangerous to our freedom than offensive speech.”

“Virginia Tech can teach the virtues of civil discourse and it can implore students to engage in it,” added Willis.  “But it cannot censor a newspaper for allowing students to express their opinions, even when they are rude or vulgar.”

In her letter to the Commission on Student Affairs, ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca K. Glenberg cites legal precedents prohibiting public universities from censoring student newspapers:

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which includes Virginia in its jurisdiction) definitively ruled on this question in Joyner v. Whiting, 477 F.2d 456 (4th Cir. 1973), a case strikingly similar to the situation at hand.   There, the student newspaper at a historically African-American public university published an editorial opposing the admission of white students.  In response, the university president withheld funding from the newspaper.” The court held that “if a college has a student newspaper, its publication cannot be suppressed because college officials dislike its editorial comment. . . . Censorship of constitutionally protected expression cannot be imposed by suspending the editors, suppressing circulation, requiring imprimatur of controversial articles, excising repugnant material, withdrawing financial support, or asserting any other form of censorial oversight based on the institution’s power of the purse.”  477 F.2d at 460.

Glenberg’s complete letter can be found at: http://acluva.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/02/20100212VTCensorship.pdf.

Contact: Kent Willis, Executive Director, 804-644-8022