See Below the Fold: La Salle Newspaper Rebels Against Administration’s Rule Requiring Prior Review

By on April 19, 2011

The Collegian, a student newspaper at La Salle University in North Philadelphia, is, in its own words, not what people typically expect of a college newspaper. For one, it lacks the freedom of the press enjoyed by many of its peer publications. As a recent editorial notes:

First and foremost, the Collegian is funded by the university. As such, La Salle is our publisher and has direct control over what ultimately gets printed.  This setup differs greatly from privately-held student newspapers, such as The Daily Collegian (Penn State University) or The Red and Black (University of Georgia), which have no such stipulations on their content, and act similarly to a traditional newspaper.

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All of our content is posted to collegian.lasalle.edu at least one day after the print issue hits newsstands.  This is because La Salle’s administration requires prior review of our content to ensure that no inaccuracies or "potentially damaging material" are spread across the Internet, where anyone, even non-Lasallians can be affected by them.

The Collegian doesn’t even have social media applications like Twitter accounts and Facebook pages because the administration fears that they would erode its powers of prior review.

La Salle is a private university, run by the Christian Brothers religious order, and it has decided that it is comfortable with this standard of prior review of the newspaper. It is free to do so, though many private universities don’t go as far as La Salle does in regulating the Collegian, usually because they decide the risk of being seen as overly micromanaging isn’t worth whatever positive coverage they may get as a result.

This is all by way of saying (yes, I’ve buried the ledeclearly I wasn’t a college journalist) that the Collegian has been feeling the full force of its prior review arrangement in recent days, even as the story it attempted to write about appeared in the national press, rendering La Salle’s administrative control about as effective as putting toothpaste back in the tube.

As the Collegian eventually printed, the article concerned La Salle management professor Jack Rappaport, who allegedly hired strippers to be present at a for-credit seminar students had paid $150 to attend. Rappaport has been suspended by La Salle after details of the seminar became public; it has been reported that the strippers gave lap dances to the students in attendance, though other eyewitnesses state that no such behavior occurred.

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s coverage of the case provides a good (and wearying) look at the steps The Collegian, helmed by Executive Editor Vinny Vella, went through in trying to get its article published:

The story was written, edited, and ready for publication April 7. "We were planning a four-column banner headline," Vella said.

But the dean of students told Vella the story would have to wait until the university completed its own investigation into the matter.

On April 8, a City Paper blog broke the story. Reports of lap-dancing and strippers were based on anonymous sources and conflicted with eyewitness accounts that Harold had heard.

Carlo Palencia, a junior who attended the symposium, told Harold that the dancers, who wore miniskirts and high heels, "would mainly walk around doing a sexy walk," but "no one was sexually or provocatively touched."

As other news outlets picked up the City Paper story, all Vella could do was prepare the more authoritative article for April 14.

But James E. Moore, dean of students, again said no, not yet, because the school was still investigating.

"At this point," Vella said, "the news had already been broken by multiple news sources. A television crew was interviewing students, and most of La Salle was aware of the story."

After arguing strenuously, Vella and Harold left the meeting dispirited. But that afternoon, the dean said that permission was granted as long as a university lawyer read the article first.

On Tuesday evening, Vella said, "We were told it could run as-is." Wednesday, he sought permission to run the story across the top of the front page. Permission was denied.

The dean said the story should run "below the fold" – on the lower half of the front page, which cannot be seen from a vending box or in a stack of newspapers.

The Collegian was nervous to get this kind of ultimatum from the administration. But it was also, at this point, annoyed at the process it had been put through and tired of making so many accommodations for the administration for a story whose details were already the stuff of national news. So it rebelled, printing the story below the fold as requestedand nothing above, save for the words "See below the fold."

As I’ve said, a university like La Salle is free to make such demands on its student publications, so long as it makes clear its intentions and doesn’t lure students under false promises of a marketplace of ideas that doesn’t really exist. They do this, of course, at their peril. FIRE can attest to the fallout and loss of faith in university administrations that try to exert too much control over their student publications. Take, for example, Quinnipiac University, where students formed the independent Quad News newspaper after attempts by the administration to gain control over its university-related paper, The Quinnipiac Chronicle.

FIRE leaves it to La Salle to decide the balance it wants to strike on matters of a free student press. The controversy over the Collegian‘s attempt to cover important university matters has, at least, rendered the debate in pure black and white. Mostly white, though, if you’re just looking above the fold.