FIRE Letter to Craven Community College President Scott Ralls, April 22, 2005

By April 22, 2005

April 22, 2005
President Scott Ralls
Craven Community College
800 College Court
New Bern, North Carolina  28562

Sent by U.S. Mail and Facsimile (252-638-4232)

Dear President Ralls:

As you can see from our Directors and Board of Advisors, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) unites leaders in the fields of civil rights and civil liberties, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of liberty, legal equality, freedom of religion, academic freedom, due process, and, in this case, freedom of speech and of the press on America’s college campuses.  Our website, thefire.org, will give you a greater sense of our identity and activities.

FIRE is gravely concerned about Craven Community College’s apparent effort to alter the The Campus Communicator’s governance structure so that the college can exercise prior review and censorship over the content of the student newspaper.  This attempt violates the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and demonstrates Craven Community College administrators’ disturbing lack of respect for students’ rights as well as a lack of understanding of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and of the press.

This is our understanding of the facts.  Please inform us if you believe we are in error.  In its March 2005 issue, The Campus Communicator (Craven Community College’s main student newspaper) printed a column by Amanda Worley entitled “Between the Sheets.”  This column consisted primarily of a list of activities readers might use to “jolt tired sex lives.”  While the column was risqué, nothing in it came close to matching the constitutional definition of “obscenity.”  Several readers complained about the content of this column to the newspaper’s staff as well as to college administrators.  These complaints prompted Craven Community College administrators to propose changes to the governance and editorial authority of the newspaper that would drastically reduce the independence of the paper, leaving room for prior review of newspaper content by college administrators.

Attached, please find the Student Press Law Center’s (SPLC’s) excellent letter of March 21, 2005, to Corey Freidman, the Campus Communicator’s editor.  SPLC’s letter is a cogent and on-target analysis of the law regarding Craven Community College’s actions.  FIRE would particularly like to draw your attention to the following statement in that letter:

The law is clear: at a public college or university, the student editor is responsible for making all decisions regarding the editorial content in his or her student publication.  School officials, while they may act in an advisory role, are required to exercise a strictly “hands-off” approach.

According to the New Bern Sun Journal, another community college in North Carolina has recognized this legal reality.  In a March 24, 2005, article, K.J. Williams wrote:

At Carteret Community College, The Breakwater, its monthly student newspaper, has no staff oversight of its content. Adviser David Travis said he does not oversee its content because that would be illegal.

“I provide advice if they ask for it and I provide education to them. But there is no previewing of the paper at all,” he said. “You wouldn’t want anyone to infringe on your First Amendment freedoms, would you?”

Carteret Community College seems to have grasped what Craven Community College has not: public institutions have both a legal and moral duty not to engage in censorship or prior review of student publications

Several of your own statements on this controversy have given us further cause for concern.  For instance, in the Sun Journal article of March 25, mentioned above, you are quoted as saying, “Our position as a college is you cannot have an independent and open forum.”  In addition, according to a recording FIRE has obtained of a March 23 meeting with staff members of The Campus Communicator and members of the press, you stated:

We [Craven Community College] are a 115D [the section of North Carolina law governing community colleges] organization.  We are not authorized to provide an independent and open forum…. There is nothing that limits open forums; there is nothing that authorizes the Community College System to have an independent forum that is divorced, not connected, to our educational mission.

Craven Community College must recognize that the North Carolina law that governs community colleges does not need to include specific and explicit provisions for an independent or open forum.  Such a forum is already provided for by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  A public college like Craven Community College is a state government agency that has both a moral and a legal responsibility not to restrict freedom of the press or freedom of speech on its campus.

FIRE is also aware that Craven Community College has been considering the sale or “outsourcing” of The Campus Communicator to Freedom Communications, Inc.  While FIRE takes no position on the sale of the newspaper, please keep in mind that such a sale will not end or lessen Craven Community College’s obligation to preserve students’ First Amendment right to freedom of the press.  Indeed, if another group of students were to start a new campus newspaper, they would enjoy the same rights that the Communicator currently enjoys.  Selling the newspaper might end the immediate conflict with the Communicator, but it would not make future administrative censorship of campus publications any more legally or morally acceptable.

FIRE urges Craven Community College administrators to carefully read the attached letter from the Student Press Law Center and to familiarize themselves with their duty to uphold our nation’s laws and constitution.  In addition to being unconstitutional, administrative censorship of a college newspaper is an unreasonable and shameful abuse of authority.  FIRE requests that the administration of Craven Community College loudly and clearly reject campus censorship, and work to assure its students that freedom of expression is to be celebrated as a foundational American freedom rather than feared as an agent of controversy.  FIRE is committed to using all of its resources to oppose any further censorship of The Campus Communicator or any other campus publication.

Due to the nature of the situation and the severity of this infringement on students’ rights, we respectfully request a reply by Monday, May 2, 2005.

Sincerely,

Robert L. Shibley
Program Manager

cc:
Cindy Hess, Executive Vice President for Instruction, Craven Community College
Diane Tyndall, Associate Vice President for Institutional Advancement, Craven Community College
Catherine Hewlette, Dean of Arts, Sciences, and Developmental Studies, Craven Community College
John Fonville, Vice President for Student Services, Craven Community College
Mit McLean, Dean of Student Services, Craven Community College
Sandy Wall, Community Relations Coordinator, Craven Community College
Monica Dowe, Student Life Coordinator, Craven Community College
Kim Zaccardelli, Continuing Education Coordinator/Support Specialist, Craven Community College
Earline Sills Williams, Chair, Craven Community College Board of Trustees
Don Brinkley, Vice-Chair, Craven Community College Board of Trustees
Mark Goodman, Student Press Law Center
Corey Friedman
Mitzi Ponce

Encl.

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Schools: Craven Community College Cases: Craven Community College: Attempt to Establish Administrative Control over Student Newspaper