At St. Louis University, a college board recently gave administrators approval to rescind the newspaper’s charter, which was written by students, and write a new one. College officials have stated this move will improve the overall quality of the newspaper. Students argue it is a veiled form of censorship aimed at a newspaper that has been critical of the administration and its decisions.
Examples of censorship and a “controlled press” on U.S. campuses abound. Unfortunately, these threats to free speech and a free press are littering many bucolic campuses. At times, it sadly seems that those campuses whose administrations don’t interfere with their students’ newspapers are becoming the exception and not the standard.
Here are some examples of the shenanigans at Barton County Community College in Kansas; the State University of New York at Rockland; and Oklahoma Baptist University.
The list is a long and dubious one, and the usual suspects are not limited to colleges and universities. More frequently, censorship and examples of a “closed press” are also staining high and middle school campuses. Here are two examples, one at Woodlan Junior-Senior High School in Indiana and another at Olentangy Liberty High School in Ohio.
The problems are complex but can best be captured by this two-pronged question: What exactly is a student newspaper and what is its purpose?
In middle and high schools and community colleges, students don’t always have the academic infrastructure to fully learn how to “do” journalism. At best, a few basic introductory courses are available, but those institutions rarely have the resources to teach students the in-depth classes that every journalist needs such as interviewing techniques, journalism ethics and law, various journalistic writing styles, a history of journalism, photojournalism, courses in new media, a grammar course, etc. Such courses are usually limited to four-year colleges and universities with dynamic schools of journalism or journalism degree programs. Middle and high schools, community colleges, and four-year institutions must work more collaboratively to design a more seamless journalism curriculum.
Students are rarely compensated for their work, and when they are, the compensation is often inadequate. This can complicate their commitments to newspapers, especially in community colleges where students are more transitory. Faculty advisers usually assume that role in addition to their regular teaching roles. They are often compensated, but usually with “release time” or “reassigned time,” which means they teach fewer classes. The problem is that the faculty member still cannot dedicate a significant portion of his or her time to advising. Perhaps if more compensation was available for advisors, they could provide more advice. Too often, advising frequently plays second fiddle, which undermines the newspaper and its students. Also, when advisers don’t have tenure, their vulnerability to administrative retaliation becomes problematic. Ultimately, school administrators must reconsider how students and faculty advisers are compensated when producing student media. These are investments that over time could pay enormous dividends for any institution that wants to showcase its most prized assets, namely its students.
Many colleges don’t take their student newspapers seriously, so student journalists are often dismissed because they are not “real” journalists. Thus, information is withheld, interviews are shunned, and news stories are never published. Many people lose in this mix. However, if more campus officials understood the larger educational context student media falls under, this perception would change. Students are trying to become professional journalists, and with adequate resources and cooperation, they will. The best way to allow that learning to blossom is to allow students to make mistakes. Yes, this is tricky and difficult: when misinformation is disseminated in a public forum and on a mass scale, the ramifications can be damaging. And this is where much of the acrimony between school administrators and student journalists emerges. But it shouldn’t.
School administrators – deans, presidents, chancellors, principals, etc. – must understand that one of the fundamental goals of any journalist is to get their story straight, but some of America’s greatest journalists who have been trained in the best journalism schools have failed at this. The key? Students, advisers, and college officials must foster an open environment where people are comfortable admitting their mistakes, retracting inaccurate misinformation, and publishing the correct information. What context is better suited for this climate than a college campus?
Some good news is on the horizon. In Illinois, the state senate recently approved the College Campus Press Act, which essentially prevents any type of prior review from college administrators. In Texas, the Texas Student Media Board at the University of Texas recently voted to eliminate its three-decades old prior review policy. However, while many other states are moving in this direction, what is ultimately needed is federal legislation that protects all U.S. public college and university students from administrative censorship.
A rigorous, national debate among leaders in higher education is desperately needed regarding the role of student media on campuses. As more mediums proliferate, the drumbeat for this debate will only grow louder. Without such a debate, those who suffer most are students; ironically, they are the exact individuals colleges are supposed to be helping.
Chris Justice is an Assistant Professor of English & Mass Communication at The Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland, United States.