The current controversy at Howard University may appear to be a simple case of students protesting the administration's expulsion of a recalcitrant student newspaper editor, but in one curious way there is less to it than meets the eye.The series of rallies, candlelight vigils and other protests has been a highly politicized mass overreaction to the administration's own initial clumsy overreaction to the student newspaper's poor handling of potentially libelous material.

Many of the 800-odd students who joined the protests were roused more by the emotionalism of student government leaders (and, undoubtedly, the lure of TV cameras) than by any deep insight into the controversy itself.

Most students did not know, for example, that the editor was not the first student expelled this year in similar questionable fashion. Three other students, also nearing graduation, suffered the same punishment for the same offense -- falsifying information on their admissions forms, only to be discovered now, years after the fact. Should the university excuse a student just because she happens to be editor of The Hilltop and a senior graduating this December?

There also is a question as to whether any censorship by the university ever, in fact, occurred. The story began last October, when Janice McKnight, the editor, ran a potentially libelous letter from a disgruntled university employee, who charged his female co-workers had received unfair promotions and perquisites.

Should The Hilltop ever be sued, the university -- not the student editor or paper itself -- would be liable, because the newspaper is neither financially independent nor incorporated.Yet steps taken by the administration to protect the university from suit were construed by the student staff of The Hilltop as "censorship."

The governing board of students and administrators that oversees the paper's operations asked the editor to print a follow-up story with comments from the accused. Three weeks went by with no follow-up story.

At this point, Howard President James Cheek intervened, providing McKnight with additional information on the alleged sex discrimination case and asking her to use this material to show the other side of the story. McKnight's response, according to Cheek, was, "I'll think about it." Cheek says he never asked her to drop coverage of the story and he says the information he provided never appeared in The Hilltop. So much for fair reporting.

Cheek then asked McKnight to allow a specially retained attorney to check any potentially libelous articles -- a routine practice at most newspapers. The Hilltop cried "censorship," and the power struggle was on.

One university vice president, asked to compile information on the situation for Howard's board of tustees, chanced upon data showing that McKnight had not mentioned in her application that she had left Syracuse University on academic probation. According to university procedure, such an offense is punishable by expulsion, even if a student is a senior.

So Cheek went straight by the book -- maybe not the most sensitive of policies, but policy nonetheless. But the administration mistakenly assumed that this expulsion of McKnight would go unnoticed and unchallenged, as had the expulsions of the three other students who had falsified their records, only to be discovered years after the fact.

This time, the expulsion was splashed across The Hilltop's front page (without any mention of the other expulsions), and student government leaders (nearing their election time) jumped on the bandwagon, bullhorns in hand.

Meanwhile, at least some administrators who sit on The Hilltop's board must be shaking their heads in frustration, knowing that the whole mess could have been avoided last April, when McKnight was chosen as editor. At that time, questions were raised about some of the information she had included on her resume. She claimed, for example, to have served as a public relations coordinator for an arts association that has no such position, board members learned; and she claimed she had worked for a company that Hilltop board members could not find through any telephone information inquiries; and she claimed she was a current writer for the Hilltop when she had not written an article in two years.

Nevertheless, McKnight was chosen during proceedings fraught with controversy. Her tenure has been no less an experience.