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First Amendment Classrooms

College Journalists Uphold Press Freedom

By Christopher Connell | Contributor | 05 March 2014
Students conversing in office (AP Images)

Controversy erupted when the student government at Montclair State University shut down the presses of the student newspaper in January 2014.

At U.S. college campuses, future journalists get much of their education not in classrooms but on student newspapers, which are a laboratory for freedom of the press — a right established in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. These newspapers teach student editors lessons on what to do when college presidents, coaches or fellow students don’t like what the paper is reporting.

The biggest problem college reporters face, said Frank LoMonte, director of the Student Press Law Center, is not outright censorship but “obstructionism” by campus leaders who may not grant interviews, release documents or allow coverage of meetings. “It’s censorship by starvation: ‘We’re not going to tell you that you can’t write this story, but we’re going to block you at every turn,’” said LoMonte.

The degree of press freedom varies depending on the type of school. The Supreme Court restricted rights for secondary-school newspapers in a 1988 decision that upheld a principal’s decision to censor stories on teen pregnancy and divorce. College papers at public universities are typically free to cover news as their staffs see fit. Private colleges may impose tighter controls, but often when they do, groups such as LoMonte’s or the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education raise such an outcry that the college leaders back off.

Shaming censors “is very effective,” said the foundation’s president, Greg Lukianoff. “Fighting them in the court of public opinion is our main weapon.”

When Alex Green, editor of the Triangle newspaper at Bryan College in Dayton, Tennessee, ferreted out the story behind the sudden resignation of a biblical studies professor in 2012 — he had been arrested in an FBI child-molestation sting — the Christian college’s president refused to let Green publish the story.

In response, Green printed and distributed several hundred fliers breaking the news on his own. Facing criticism, President Stephen Livesay conceded in a statement that blocking the story “may have been a mistake.”

At La Salle University, a Catholic institution in Philadelphia, Vinny Vella, editor of the Collegian, tangled in 2011 with a dean who prevented him from running a scoop — an exclusive story — about a professor's inappropriate behavior during an ethics seminar. After other news outlets reported on the incident, the dean let the story run in the next issue, but ordered it relegated to the bottom of the front page.

Vella complied. But he left the top half of the front page blank save for the words “See below the fold.” His move drew national attention. Vella, now a Philadelphia Daily News reporter, said, “If La Salle didn’t want its journalism students to act like actual journalists, then it shouldn’t have a student newspaper.”

Former journalist and media watchdog Jim Romenesko pounces on censorship in his media blog. “College administrators see student newspapers as necessary evils. They need them as a training tool for student journalists and for their journalism classes” but oftentimes bridle “when they start asking tough questions,” Romenesko said.

Rachele Kanigel, professor of journalism at San Francisco State University and president of the College Media Association, said, “On a day-to-day basis, most student newspapers don’t get any interference.” Sometimes critics latch onto students’ mistakes or bad judgment and use that as an argument for reining in their freedom. “People say, ‘The newspaper’s not doing its job or not doing it well, and this has to stop,’” Kanigel said.

Some student newspapers are run out of journalism departments or through student affairs offices. Others are fully independent, such as the Daily Tar Heel at the University of North Carolina and the Daily Collegian at Penn State.

All have one thing in common. These newspapers are “where a lot of students come to understand the First Amendment because they are practicing it,” Kanigel said.

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Free Press on Campus

• After a 2010 riot during a party at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, police seized nearly a thousand photographs from the Breeze, the student newspaper. Student-editors got the photos returned, posted 20 of them online and received an apology and $10,000 in legal fees.

• A federal appeals court in 2012 revived a lawsuit against Oregon State University by editors of a conservative student newspaper, the Liberty, after the university confiscated the newspaper’s distribution bins.

• The University of Memphis restored $25,000 in student activity fees to the Daily Helmsman — funds that a student activity board cut in 2012 because it was dissatisfied with the newspaper’s content.

• Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times was threatened by a student affairs board with loss of funding unless the paper stopped allowing anonymous comments on its website. University officials disavowed the threat and the board backed off.