A college instructor did not violate the First Amendment by removing a student’s online blog post submitted in response to a class assignment, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The court reasoned that the instructor had a legitimate educational reason under the high school press-censorship case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), to remove the post, which criticized the assignment.
Jeremy Collins, a student at Charter Oak State College in New Britain, Conn., was a student in Communications 101 taught by Rebecca Putt. The class was taught virtually, with students and the instructor communicating via an online message board. Two weeks into the class, Putt asked the class to watch a video depicting a young man conversing with and then assisting an elderly man. Putt then posted a series of questions for the students to answer about the encounter.
Collins responded by posting a message he described as “intentionally humorous, ironic and provocative.” He also critiqued the assignment in his post.
Collins’s blog post, which is attached to his legal complaint, says the assigned video was “excruciatingly awkward,” “ridiculous,” and depicted “two complete idiots hav[ing] a conversation that could only take place in an alternate reality on a planet far, far away.” The post describes the older character as “cranky,” “self pitying,” “offended,” “angry,” and engaged in “miserable griping.”
Putt removed Collins’ post, informing him that although she didn’t mind a little humor, his post might offend others.
Collins filed a federal lawsuit, alleging a violation of his First Amendment and due-process rights. A federal district court dismissed the complaint. On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed this dismissal in its Oct. 29, 2020, opinion in Collins v. Putt.
Writing for the majority, Judge Raymond J. Lohier determined that the governing standard was the Hazelwood standard, deferential to school administrators, that says that school officials do not violate a student’s First Amendment rights if they censor school-sponsored student speech for a legitimate reason.
Here, the panel determined that “Collins’s blog bears the hallmarks of school sponsorship,” noting that it was made in response to a class assignment. Lohier also wrote: “[W]e have no doubt that Putt’s response to Collins’s post was reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.”
Lohier also found that Collins did not plausibly allege a claim of viewpoint discrimination. “An instructor does not engage in viewpoint discrimination when she permits student speech that endeavors to perform an assignment, whatever its viewpoint, but deletes speech that predominately criticizes the assignment,” he wrote.
Judge Steven J. Menashi wrote a concurring opinion in which he said Collins did plausibly allege a claim of viewpoint discrimination. However, he still concurred, because he found that Putt and college administrators were entitled to qualified immunity.
The panel may well have reached the correct result in this case. However, the panel cavalierly assumed that the Hazelwood standard from a high school censorship case automatically applied at the college level. Unfortunately, as I have explained in my Howard Law Journal article “Thirty Years of Hazelwood and Its Spread to Colleges and University Campuses,” this is a common occurrence.
David L. Hudson Jr. is a professor at Belmont University College of Law who writes and speaks regularly on First Amendment issues. He is the author of First Amendment: Freedom of Speech (2012), of a 12-part lecture series titled Freedom of Speech: Understanding the First Amendment (2018), and of a 24-part lecture series, The American Constitution 101 (2019).