‘Daniel Pearl Freedom of Press Act’ and Press Freedom at America’s Colleges

May 17, 2010

Today the Daniel Pearl Freedom of Press Act has been signed into law in the United States. The Associated Press reports that the law, named after the American journalist who was beheaded in Pakistan, "expands efforts to identify countries where press freedom is being violated." Sounds great to me—no journalist should have to suffer violence for doing his job—but I wonder how much attention is being brought to bear on (admittedly much less violent) violations of freedom of the press here in the United States, particularly among U.S. colleges and universities.

Most recently we have a show of police force against a student newspaper by a county prosecutor in Virginia. Last month, Rockingham County, Virginia, prosecutor Marsha Garst sent a bunch of police officers to the offices of the James Madison University student newspaper, The Breeze, to grab about 1,000 photographs of a riot near campus and other unrelated subjects.

Then there are the thefts of student newspapers, once in a while even under the nose of a campus police officer, as at UMass Amherst (video). Frequently, completely misrepresenting the law, campus police will say that the theft doesn’t count because the papers are free. (Try walking into any campus office and taking all of the "free" brochures.) Most recently, students at American University stole copies of The Eagle from across campus and threw many of them outside the paper’s offices because they disliked the content of an op-ed (video).

Then there are the burnings of student newspapers, such as at Dartmouth, when some students disliked the content of a humor cartoon in The Dartmouth (in which Friedrich Nietzsche converses about morality with a male college student) and proceeded to burn issues of the paper.

Then there are cases of censorship and punishment of the student press—there are plenty—such as when Tufts University found The Primary Source responsible for "harassment" after printing true statements about Islam during Islamic Awareness Week and printing a satire of affirmative action. The most recent offender on this score is the University of Utah, which is reminiscent of a prosecution of the editor of Colorado State University’s student newspaper, The Rocky Mountain Collegian, for protected speech.

Let’s hope that the United States can be a better example to the world of living true to the First Amendment.