Former College Newspaper Advisor on How Unlearning Liberty Stifled Journalism

By on April 15, 2013

Sometimes an illustration of "unlearning liberty" comes in the form of an open-and-shut case, a clear violation of the First Amendment that is quickly followed by victory in the court of public opinion or justice in a court of law. Other times, students and professors simply bear witness to the slow death of what could have been a significant forum for information and opinions.

Jeff Pearlman, columnist for Sports Illustrated and author of two New York Times best-sellers writes in his blog about his all-too-brief experience as the faculty advisor to The Touchstone, Manhattanville College’s student newspaper. Starting in the fall of 2011, Pearlman shared his passion for journalism with students at the Purchase, N.Y. school. He turned an almost-dead publication into a biweekly labor of love that earned its editors internships with The Rachel Maddow Show and Sports Illustrated.

The next fall, Pearlman learned he had been replaced as the newspaper’s advisor—a position for which he had been volunteering. The new advisor had experience with public relations, and the paper would from that point forward promote the "right" image of the school. Pearlman protested, but explains that his concerns fell upon deaf ears:

When I told the heads of my department about the happenings, they had no idea. We wound up having a meeting with the provost. She apologized, also said it wasn’t her call, but that the college was concerned about "the message." What if prospective students, taking a campus tour, pick up the Touchstone and see a column about crappy food or bad policies? What then? I told her that journalism can’t be taught as public relations; that students must be able to voice their displeasure-and pleasure-in a free forum. A college newspaper is not a promotional pamphlet. A college newspaper is a newspaper. 

To my great shock, I sat in front of her and my voice began to crack. Again, I told her, I made no money to do this; I certainly didn’t need to do this for my career. It was, 100 percent, about love, passion, developing journalists, seeing them published and, ultimately, hired. She nodded and smiled and empathized.

The meeting ended.

I was later told, by multiple college officials, that this came down to one thing, and one thing only: Image control.

The greater significance of the administration’s decision hit Pearlman after he saw the fall 2012 issue of The Touchstone. What looked like a "PR pamphlet" to him, the school provost described as "quite good." With a broken heart and a real sense of loss, Pearlman writes: "Journalism is, undeniably, under attack. Newspapers are closing. Corporate entities are stifling free press; colleges and universities are cracking down on student-generated publications. We, as a nation, are increasingly comfortable with the idea of limited voice."

Read Pearlman’s poignant full story (and similar experiences from commenters) on his blog.