The Howard University administration didn't like the way the student newspaper, The Hilltop, was playing the story of a sex-discrimination suit against the school.

According to Hilltop editor Janice McKnight, Howard President James Cheek asked her not to print anything else about it. She ignored the request, citing her First Amendment rights as an editor. Then Howard retained the Washington law firm of Williams and Connolly to review "potentially defamatory material" before publication in the Hilltop and authorized a vice president to spike any stories the lawyers considered libelous. Still the stories continued.

Now McKnight, a senior with a 2.9 grade-point average, has been expelled from school, which means she can no longer edit the paper. University officials say there is no link between the Hilltop articles and McKnight's expulsion.

Maybe not. Maybe it just looks funny.

Carl Anderson, vice president for student affairs, says university staffers were preparing materials for a meeting of the board of trustees, a meeting at which "one of the questions concerned the future relationship between the administration and the newspaper," when they uncovered the information that led to McKnight's expulsion. Privacy considerations kept him from revealing the nature of that information, he said.

The damning discovery, apparently, was that McKnight had attended Syracuse University for a time, had encountered some academic problems, and had withdrawn before applying as a freshman at Howard. Apparently she falsified her answer to an application question that would have disclosed her previous college experience, and that falsification became the basis for her expulsion.

While Anderson wouldn't verify that account, he said that if it happened that way, expulsion would have been virtually automatic. He said that there are between three and five such cases each year and that "every case that has come to my attention" during his 14 years in the vice president's post, has resulted in expulsion. "That's SOP," he said. "Standard operating procedure."

Without condoning false statements (McKnight, on advice of her lawyer, John Clifford, would not comment on the matter) it seems safe to say that expulsion is a fairly stiff punishment for the offense. It wasn't as though she forged academic credits, or that revealing the disputed information would have kept her out of Howard. Indeed, it may be that some of the credits she earned at Syracuse, but didn't claim at Howard, were transferrable.

The suspicion remains that the university may have gone looking for an excuse to get rid of a recalcitrant editor. Anderson denies that there was any search for actionable information on McKnight, insisting that the information simply "turned up in gathering the material for the board of trustees."

Meanwhile, McKnight intends to charge the university with a breach of its own due process provision and may also raise questions concerning a possible violation of the Buckley Amendment that places tight restrictions on the release of students' academic records.

It's too bad that the case has to come down to that sort of technicality. Both the university and McKnight would have been better off if her offense (if that is what it was) could have been punished by some means short of senior-year expulsion.