From Father to Big Brother: Applying K-12 Law to Colleges

Article excerpt

AS OUR SOCIETY SEEKS to prepare more and more students for college-level work in a l marketplace that demands such training, policy makers are paying increased attention to the connections between elementary and secondary schools and their higher education counterparts.

Recognition of this continuum is critical to a broad understanding of our nation's educational system. Nonetheless, when courts blur the distinctions between K-12 and higher education, fundamental strengths and values of the academy may be undermined.

A professor of educational studies at California University of Pennsylvania recently sued his university after he was suspended for teaching from a nonapproved syllabus in a course on educational media. In ruling against him, a federal appellate court asserted that "a public university professor does not have a First Amendment right to decide what will be taught in the classroom." Citing precedents from the K-12 context, the court stated that his in-class conduct and classroom management techniques could be freely regulated by university dictates because he worked for a state institution.

In another recent case, Kincaid v. Gibson, a federal district court applied a Supreme Court decision permitting censorship of publications sponsored by high schools to a university yearbook. Administrators at Kentucky State University refused to distribute the student yearbook because they objected to its color, title, picture captions, and focus on current events. They did not argue that the yearbook contained libel, obscenity, or any other form of expression subject to First Amendment restrictions. The court stated that the university is free to set higher standards than those demanded by newspaper publishers in the "real world," adopting the Supreme Court's standard allowing administrators to censor high school publications that they find to be "ungrammatical, poorly written, inadequately researched, biased or prejudiced. . ., or inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order."

The K-12 precedents relied on by these courts justify regulation of faculty and student expression on the premise that the state itself is essentially the speaker in public school activities, both in and outside the classroom. The state's authority to regulate such expression reflects the compulsory nature of elementary and secondary education, state mandates regarding details of the curriculum, and the parentlike responsibilities of school officials based on the age and maturity of their students. …