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Students’ magazines

January 19, 2019

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The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

THERE is a strange impression that students have no rights as citizens. The truth is that a student is as much a citizen as anyone else.

The fundamental rights that belong to citizens do not vanish even when a citizen is convicted of murder. Certain limitations properly apply in his situation. But they are the ones that the law prescribes. The courts are there to judge whether they are reasonable or not. The same rule applies to students, the ones at school more restrictively than those in universities.

Recently, an MP, an editor, a professor and other guests turned up at Delhi University after being invited to release a magazine brought out by the university’s students’ union. But some of the ‘hosts’ who greeted them were the not-so-welcoming police and barricades. The magazine DYouth was eventually released at the barricades.

Congress MP Rajeev Gowda, All India Congress Committee joint secretary Ruchi Gupta, DU Hindi professor Apoorvanand and The Wire’s founding editor Siddharth Varadarajan had been invited to release the first edition of the annual magazine.

University students have the right to publish a magazine without permission.

In all this, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh students’ wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, specialists in creating trouble whenever they can, had a hand. It was an offshoot of a contested election of the president of the Delhi University students’ union. DYouth was not funded by the union but by members of its editorial board.

Some time back, Challenge, a monthly magazine published at the Mumbai University campus, was not permitted to be released or sold for want of ‘requisite permission’ from the university authorities. This is an issue of fundamental importance. Is permission to publish a students’ magazine a prerequisite to its publication and sale on the campus?

The law requires no more than prior registration of newspapers. There is nothing to require an additional condition of prior approval of the university authorities. This is akin to pre-censorship and is, therefore, a violation of the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression.

To be fair and realistic, an educational ins­­titution’s prime duty is to provide good education. As one authority on free speech puts it “education is incompatible with unlimi­­ted freedom in the school environment”. Greater latitude is accorded to college students.

In 1969, Justice Abe Fortas of the US sup­reme court said that students’ rights were not confined to classroom hours but exte­n­ded to communication anywhere on the school premises.

Section 43 of Britain’s Education Act, 1986, is relevant. It says: “(1) Every individual and body of persons concerned in the government of any [university or college] establishment ... shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the establishment, and for visiting speakers.

“(2) The duty imposed by subsection (1) ... includes (in particular) the duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the use of any premises of the establishment is not denied to any individual or body of persons on any ground connected with (a) the belief or views of that individual or of any member of that body; or (b) the policy or objectives of that body.” Freeedom of speech is exercised orally as well as in print or drama. Justice Fortas said that “First Amendment rights [in the US. constitution guaranteeing freedom of speech], applied in the light of the special characteristics of the school environment, are available to tea­chers and students.”

Applying these fundamentals, the conclusion is inescapable. Students have a fundamental right to publish and circulate a magazine without prior permission from the institution’s authorities. This applies to both schools and colleges; but the latter will necessarily have greater latitude on the contents.

The formality of prior registration with the authorities is necessary, as in the case of newspapers and periodicals. The authorities must have the power to bar a student’s journal in the event of abuse of the right. Students will be entitled as in the case of any journal to challenge the ban in court.

Those who cavil at these rights would do well to remember that “the university is a community within the general community. It provides space, meals, lodging and other facilities for its members and encloses within its walls a fixed group of people sharing ideas, interests, activities, and a major portion of their lives”.

It is entitled to an autonomous existence and to freedom of speech. But the culture of autonomy can hardly exist if the government appoints vice chancellors. As Justice Felix Frankfurter said, “there is grave harm resulting from government’s intrusion in the intellectual life of a university”. A society that permits this will ignore bans on students’ magazines.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, January 19th, 2019