Censorship Fail at Southern Methodist

June 13, 2011

A debate over censorship of Southern Methodist University’s (SMU’s) student newspaper, The Daily Campus, has generated some friction between newspaper staff and SMU administrators. The Daily Campus operates without administrative oversight all yearexcept for the mail-home summer edition. To obtain the addresses of all incoming freshmen so they can mail the paper to them, The Daily Campus has apparently agreed to administators’ demand of prior review over the content of that issue. This year, the administration reportedly approved all articles except for a piece by Politics Editor Jessica Huseman about a lack of transparency for SMU’s Board of Trustees.

When asked why this particular article wasn’t fit to print, Dean of Student Life Lisa Webb remarked:

The column spoke to an audience, but it didn’t speak to new students. If a story doesn’t hit our target audience, our agreement is that it won’t be published.

If an article about the Board of Trustees, which oversees the operations of pretty much everything on campus, doesn’t speak to new students, I don’t know what does. Perhaps what Webb meant to say was that the story didn’t confine itself to the selective information SMU apparently wants incoming freshmen to know.

Huseman expressed understandable frustration over the censorship of her article:

Just because, in this specific area, I have a negative view of SMU does not mean my opinion was not as valid as the praise for SMU that is on (what would have been) the page both before and after my opinion. Additionally, it calls for the same thing that the other opinions in the "Top 5 issues at SMU" page call for: improvement in certain aspects of SMU. Why is the change I call for different from the change that the student body vice president or the student representative to the Board of Trustees calls for? Because mine would irk the board.

The real issue here is this: The student newspaper is not meant to be a PR tool of the school or the board. It is meant to be a newspaper. Just like the Dallas Morning News does not report only good things about the City of Dallas, and just like the Washington Post does not only report good things about Capitol Hill, we do not only report good things about SMU. That is not our function. We would be cheating ourselves and our readers if we did not inform them of problems in order that they might be fixed in an appropriate and proactive way.

The Daily Campus has sparked a lot of change in its almost 100 years of existence. It has been with SMU since the beginning, and has been a voice for students to speak out on their concerns since it started. That might be uncomfortable, but that is the reality of the situation. The most effective page in sparking this change has always been the opinion page. For the administration to eliminate one of the opinions on this page because they don’t feel its worthy of print is indicative of the weight they place on student opinion.

It is simply a fact that SMU has a problem with transparency. This is nothing new. This incident is further proof that the administration has no problem hiding things from the student body. Fortunately, we are an independent paper and can publish this opinion in our own way – even if it isn’t in the original form we intended it to be."

Huseman’s observations are right on target, of course, but what makes this case interesting is that The Daily Campus has (perhaps unwisely) traded the freedom to freely publish the news for the addresses of incoming freshmen. SMU is under no obligation to provide the addresses of incoming freshmen to an independent newspaper. And as a private institution, there is probably no legal issue with SMU demanding prior review as the cost of the address list. However, just because something is legally permissible does not mean that it is right, wise, or (in this case) not creepy. The purpose of higher education is to foster an atmosphere of learning where students are exposed to widely varying viewpoints. Censorship, if it is effectivewhich it rarely isensures that certain views will never be heard, inhibiting students’ critical thinking skills. SMU’s censorship of this issue sends all the wrong messages.

In this case, SMU’s efforts were also largely futile, because in the age of the Internet, censoring the print edition of a newspaper definitely doesn’t work. In fact, soon after she was denied the print venue, Huseman published her piece online for all incoming freshman to see. Furthermore, as is often the case with censorship, Webb’s attempt to control "sensitive" information harmed the university more than helping it. While allowing Huseman’s article to be printed may have caused some freshman to form a negative opinion of the Board of Trustees, Webb’s actions, and the consequential negative media attention, will probably fuel even more negative feelings about the university.

We hope that next year, the SMU administration will think twice before censoring its mail-home summer edition on the basis of viewpoint, or else some high school seniors might think twice before attending Southern Methodist University.

Schools:  Southern Methodist University