College media censorship has a lot in common with Mystique. The mutant supervillain associated with the X-Men is best known for her duplicitous shape-shifting aimed at doing harm. Over the past academic year, a Censor supervillain similarly known for adopting many identities and tactics has attempted to stomp out student press expression nationwide.
The censorious shape-shifter has morphed into various administrators, university presidents, football coaches, campus police, government officials, and even college journalists’ undergraduate peers. Their harmful activity included student journalism theft, trashing, distribution limitation, funding cuts, and source constraints.
The lowlights of the Censor’s villainy during the past two semesters:
- Late last September, Towson University president Robert Caret publicly condemned a sex column published in The Towerlight student newspaper. He threatened to pull needed university funding from the paper if the column continued running, a stance from which he eventually backed down. Critics called Caret’s attack posturing that did nothing but inflame tensions and put Towson in the spotlight as a school boasting leaders who do not believe in editorial freedom. As The Baltimore Sun noted, "There may indeed be little journalistic value in ‘The Bed Post’ [column] . . . . [But] it should have been up to the students to come to those conclusions, not have them dictated by lawmakers and university administrators. The first lessons student journalists in a democracy learn should not have to be how to survive under the censor’s arbitrary fist."
- Also last fall, University of Montana football coach Bobby Hauck (who has since accepted a job at UNLV) threw a prolonged temper tantrum aimed directly at The Montana Kaimin, the school’s student newspaper. He temporarily refused to speak to the Kaimin, and instructed his team and staff to boycott the publication as well. Why? Simply because Kaimin staffers had the gall to publish an accurate story about two football players’ alleged misdeeds and then also ask Hauck some tame football questions at press conferences. Hauck later relented and apologized.
- In a separate incident also involving the gridiron, Guy Morriss, the football coach at Texas A&M University-Commerce, expressed pride last March at his players’ involvement in the theft of almost 2,000 copies of The East Texan. The issue of the newspaper that riled players contained a front page story headlined, "Football Player Arrested in Drug Bust." Most of the squad was involved in the roughly one-hour mass theft operation. The coach’s reaction when he found out about their misdeeds: "This was the best team building exercise we have ever done."
- In October 2009, more than 10,000 copies of The Daily Wildcat were poached at the University of Arizona. The theft cost the newspaper $8,500 in lost advertising revenue and printing fees. An array of evidence implicated members of a campus fraternity that had recently received negative coverage in the newspaper. The paper passionately led a probe into the thefts, stating, "Someone stole the news. . . . Until this case is definitively settled, the newspaper’s staff will continue to do whatever is necessary to find justice in this case." So far, no culprits have been arrested or charged.
- In April, The Chart at Missouri Southern State University was suddenly forced to gather all information on campus through one official: the director of university relations. School administrators said it was an organizational issue. Chart staffers and student press advocates called it a Stalinesque attempt at information control, enacted in the wake of negative events at the school. According to the newspaper’s editor in chief, "I think some people on this campus have the viewpoint that especially with the press this university has had in the past couple months, the less publicity now the better."
- The Breeze at James Madison University suffered two separate attacks on its editorial freedom in the past year. The first began last October with a peeping tom- an alleged voyeur watching women in dorm showers. A Breeze reporter went to a JMU residence hall to speak with students about the reported shower stalker. An on-site RA became nervous and asked the reporter to leave. The Breeze editor in chief came by as back-up. Soon after, school officials charged both staffers with "trespassing, disorderly conduct and non-compliance with an official request." Administrators declared the dorms to be private property, off-limits to student journalists. A majority of critics saw the charges as a nasty power abuse against the spirit and possibly the legal definition of the First Amendment. As a JMU professor stated, "It’s very ironic we have this situation at an institution named after James Madison, who has been labeled the father of the Constitution."
Six months later, local police and a county prosecutor stormed into the Breeze newsroom. They seized (digitally burned) hundreds of unpublished photographs taken by newspaper staffers during Springfest, a school block party that turned into a riot. Inexplicably, the police also burned lots of other photos unrelated to the event. Breeze staffers were forced to watch, mad and mystified, while their intellectual property was taken.
The police and prosecutor had no legal backing for their actions. Some press advocates even argued that they were breaking the law. As Kevin Smith, president of the Society of Professional Journalists, said at the time, "It sounds to me like the prosecutor needs to spend more time with law books and less time watching Law & Order." The Washington Post similarly noted in a shaking of its editorial fist about the incident, "There was no subpoena, no court arguments and no recognition that raiding a newspaper makes a mockery of the First Amendment." In the end, the county prosecutor offered an official apology for the mockery and paid the newspaper’s $10,000 legal fees accrued while fighting her actions.
- In early March, the student body president of Kansas University publicly called for a discontinuation of the $83,000 in student fees allocated to The Daily Kansan, citing perceived conflict-of-interest issues. In his words, "There is a lot of potential for undue influence both ways." Critics countered that the president’s concerns ignored the Kansan‘s longstanding journalism excellence and the fact that financial support for campus publications from student fees is common across higher education. The KU student senate finance committee subsequently approved the proposed cut, which had the potential to cause a debilitating domino effect for the newspaper involving a staff shortage, content reductions, and an advertising decline. Fortunately, the full student senate later reversed the finance committee’s vote, upholding the publication’s student fees support.
- In April, a pair of "agitated, angry, nervous, and certainly dangerous" cows dashed to freedom on Ohio State University’s campus, prompting a police chase and tranquilizer shots. Alex Kotran, a photographer for The Lantern, quickly raced to the scene to snatch photographs of the cow-tastrophe. A school official spotted him and demanded he stop snapping shots. He rightfully responded with reminders about public property and press freedom. As the cattle continued their short-term stampede, campus cops intervened and inexplicably held Kotran against his will. As a Lantern report noted, "He was detained, handcuffed and is facing a misdemeanor charge of criminal trespass. . . . ‘[A police officer] told me I was under arrest,’ Kotran said. ‘I advised him that I was on public property, and he started talking about Supreme Court cases and stuff.’ Kotran said he was detained ‘for about 10 minutes.’" In the end, the cows were captured and all charges against Kotran were dropped.
- In early May, administrators at the University of Utah threatened to hold the academic records and degrees of nine soon-to-graduate senior staffers at The Daily Utah Chronicle. The reason: A series of columns run in the newspaper’s goodbye issue that overtly spelled the words ‘penis’ and ‘c*nt’ via the bolded drop-caps starting each column. The school said the editors had violated school rules, calling the wordplay an "intentional disruption or obstruction" of university activities. The troubling aspect about the university’s involvement was that their aim was an independent entity. Chronicle content does not come under administrative control- vulgar column drop-caps included. As a letter of concern sent to Utah administrators by the SPLC and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) stated, "As a public university both legally and morally bound to respect the First Amendment rights of its students, the University of Utah cannot lawfully punish students for exercising their First Amendment rights." The administrators’ threats ultimately proved hollow. The students’ degrees were awarded on time.
- And finally, and most disturbingly, in fall 2009, Virginia Tech University administrators threatened to cut funding for The Collegiate Times, the school yearbook, and other campus media due to their distaste for the CT’s allowance of anonymous comments following stories posted online. The university’s Commission on Student Affairs declared that the student newspaper’s failure to oversee and remove troublesome anonymous comments from its website violated the school’s "principles of community."
In response, the newspaper’s parent company reminded the commission of the CT’s editorial independence and promised a legal fight if the funding threat was carried out. In addition, FIRE released a rebuke of the school’s threats, noting: "Virginia Tech is acting because of content-based concerns, which is plainly unconstitutional. Virginia Tech, after all, is a public university bound by the First Amendment, although it seems that Virginia Tech has little interest in acknowledging this fact. . . . Woe be to Virginia Tech." Ultimately, after a quick burst of mostly negative media attention nationwide and the specter of a brewing legal battle, Virginia Tech officials backed down.
That result is an example of the one main thread binding all these different sagas together other than censorship: empowerment. Simply put, it is tougher than ever to mess with the student press. The organizational backing on a national level- including the SPLC, SPJ, FIRE, and the Associated Collegiate Press (ACP)- has never been stronger. The web also enables a rapid response scenario in which the professional press, the blogosphere, and the Twitter community can immediately band together, offer advice and other assistance, and spread the word about an injustice worldwide. The responses often create public relations nightmares for student press opponents.
They also breed confidence. Student media are now much more secure drawing firm lines in the sand over controversial issues because they know they will not be alone when times get tough. Nowadays, a fight against a particular student press outlet is also a fight against college media, free press advocates, and the very power of the web itself. It is the modern student press mystique.