The Importance of a Free Student Press
Ensuring freedom of the press at colleges and universities is extremely important because an independent student press keeps the campus community informed, contributes to the vitality of student debate, and trains students for a career in journalism. Student journalists are uniquely positioned to cover developments, issues, and discussions that affect students, faculty, and staff. By reporting on news that otherwise might not receive attention, an independent student press serves a vital watchdog role. Like the professional press, student journalists function as a check on power, making sure that campus discussions are buttressed by solid reporting and verified facts, not spin. In addition to keeping the campus informed, a free student press can provide a forum for a wide diversity of student, faculty, and staff voices, thus facilitating robust debate. An independent student press may provide room for many responses to the issues of the day, allowing readers to reach their own well-informed conclusions after considering fresh viewpoints. Finally, and importantly, when working for their campus newspaper, student journalists are honing the skills they will later use as professionals. American democracy relies on freedom of the press, so an independent, uncensored student press serves an important training function. By receiving critical on-the-job training working for campus newspapers, student reporters and editors will be far more prepared to assume professional responsibilities after graduation.
Student Press Censorship
Despite the many benefits of a free press on campus, FIRE’s years of experience defending free expression demonstrate that far too often, student newspapers fall victim to censorship. Censorship of the student press takes many forms:
Prior restraint and prior review
“Prior restraint” refers to the practice of prohibiting speech or writing on a subject before it is published or communicated. For example, a prohibition on printing any stories about a scandal involving the college president would be prior restraint. “Prior review” occurs when an administrator or other official demands to review and approve the contents of a news outlet prior to publication. Both prior review and prior restraint are almost always unconstitutional at public universities and, at any university, represent a severe threat to freedom of the press and freedom of expression. For an example of a FIRE case involving prior review, see our case at Quinnipiac University, where student journalists were prevented from publishing stories online before campus administrators had read them in print.
Denial of funding
Many independent student newspapers are organized as registered student groups and depend on student activity fee funding from student governments. Unfortunately, student governments sometimes abuse their power by withholding or threatening to withhold funding on account of the content of the student newspaper. Financially punishing a student publication because of viewpoint- or content-specific considerations threatens freedom of expression. For an example of a FIRE case involving a denial of funding, see our victory at the University of West Georgia, where the university’s Student Activity Fee Budget Allocation Committee cut funding for the student newspaper after the publication reported on student government corruption and featured a satire of fraternity life.
All too often, student newspapers are subject to mass theft. In many cases, students, administrators, and even the town mayor have stolen hundreds of copies of a paper’s run in an attempt to prevent others from reading it, particularly when an issue features a controversial story or an unpopular viewpoint. Newspaper theft is censorship—a particularly ugly form of the “heckler’s veto”—as it silences expression by rendering it physically inaccessible. For an example of a FIRE case involving newspaper theft, see our discussion of newspaper theft at American University.
Termination of Adviser
Instead of directly censoring a student publication on account of its content, colleges and universities sometimes attempt to censor or intimidate student journalists by terminating a publication’s adviser. This indirect form of censorship retaliates against both the student journalists and the adviser on account of a publication’s content and thus represents a severe threat to freedom of expression. For an example of a FIRE case involving the firing of a newspaper adviser, see our case at East Carolina University, where an independent publication’s adviser was fired following the newspaper’s publication of an uncensored photograph of a streaker at a football game.
More Resources for Student Journalists
One of the most effective ways for student journalists to educate their campuses about the importance of a free press and of free speech more generally is by doing what they do best: writing! To that end, check out some additional resources from both FIRE and the SPLC below.
Additional Resources from FIRE
- Read FIRE’s newly revised Guide to Free Speech on Campus to learn more about the philosophical principles and legal precedent supporting the First Amendment;
- For tips on covering campus speech codes, check out the op-ed writing guidelines FIRE put together to help students spread the word about freedom of expression;
- Former FIRE Intern and student journalist Shelli Gimelstein writes about the impact of newspaper theft on her campus paper;
- FIRE President Greg Lukianoff explains the problems posed by finding a student newspaper guilty of harassment for publishing factual statements about Islam;
- FIRE’s Peter Bonilla covers the threat of punishment for a satirical newspaper at Rutgers University;
- Adam Kissel summarizes a victory for free speech following the costly firing of a student newspaper advisor at East Carolina University.
Additional Resources from the Student Press Law Center
- FERPA Fact, which explains the use (and misuse) of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act by colleges and universities;
- Covering Campus Crime (PDF), a guide for student journalists;
- Cure Hazelwood, SPLC’s page explaining the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, in which the Court sharply limited the independence of high school journalists.
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