When Administrators Put ‘Public Image’ Over the First Amendment, Everybody Loses

By on July 18, 2006

FIRE Summer Intern Sherri Geng, a rising sophomore at Harvard College, discusses a recent case of newspaper censorship:
 
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A notable case of newspaper censorship is once again in the news. At Glendale Community College in California, the campus student newspaper, El Vaquero, reported in June on the suicides of two nursing students in the last year. But when the papers hit the newsstands and the web, they quickly disappeared.
 
After finding stacks of the missing papers in a dumpster, student editor Jane Pojawa filed a police report—but to no avail. Soon after, administrators (denying that they confiscated the papers yet apparently anxious about any negative press the report would bring for their nursing program) asked the paper’s faculty advisor, Michael Moreau, to pull the story offline. After initially agreeing to President John A. Davitt’s censorship request, Moreau contacted the Student Press Law Center, which determined that the administration’s move was a direct violation of the newspaper’s First Amendment rights. Moreau informed his student editor, who put the story back up on the web with links to relevant recent media coverage.
 
FIRE applauds GCC’s student paper, its advisor, and its editor for rightfully reclaiming their constitutional rights from the hands of an administration whose singular, misguided intention seems to have been touting its “100 percent pass rate” and protecting its “public image” at the great expense of its students’ fundamental rights. The article, which ended on a positive note encouraging students with mental illness to seek help, not only brought attention to the problem of suicide on campus but also publicized ways for students to cope with the “stress and realities of mental illness.”
 
Enough with the concerns of “public image”—administrators must look beyond the possibility that an article might tarnish a school’s reputation and focus on the larger concern: the fact that suicide is a real problem among college students. By refusing to allow the student press to release any information on the deaths, President Davitt not only lost a chance to battle the myths of a misunderstood condition but also reinforced the societal stigmatization of mental illness. Furthermore, if he was looking to avoid bad press, the president failed in all respects: the real harm to his school’s public image has come not from the suicide report itself but rather from the revelation of its censorship. Instead of looking at the story solely as a liability in the press, President Davitt should have welcomed this opportunity to debate how better to provide care for those affected by mental illness and rebuild a community already suffering from loss.