For Some College Papers, Free Speech Ends Where Ads for Competitors Begin

August 1, 2012

The spring 2012 issue of the SPLC Report, published by the Student Press Law Center, contains a concerning story about intrusions on private university newspapers by administrations who don’t want them taking advertisements from other institutions.

The most troublesome example of the bunch is from Long Island University’s (LIU’s) C.W. Post campus, where the administration banned its campus newspaper, The Pioneer, from running ads for other universities after it carried ads for programs at Hofstra University. (Do read the whole article, though, for the other examples.) SPLC staff writer Nick Glunt reports LIU’s justification for doing so:

"Our student newspaper is a student club. It is funded through the Student Government Association using student activity fees that the university collects," C.W. Post Provost Paul Forestell wrote in a statement. "I have the fiduciary responsibility to make sure those funds are used in ways that most benefit our students."

"Running ads from other universities would be a poor business decision on the part of the student newspaper," Forestell continued. "This is not a free speech or student service issue. Our position is that it does not serve our students well to allow others to use the student newspaper to entice our students to go elsewhere."

LIU is private, and private universities are free to impose restrictions on free speech so long as they make clear that students should not expect the same right to freedom of speech they would have at, say, one of the public SUNY or CUNY colleges. LIU, however, does make some strong promises of free expression. See, for example, LIU’s statement on Political Activities, which states:

The primary purpose of the University is to create and share knowledge. Toward that end, the University promotes discussion of important issues in society, including the free expression and exchange of political viewpoints and ideas. The University will support and protect the freedoms of speech, expression, petition, peaceable assembly and association.

Such a policy, you would think, should surely insulate The Pioneer from unreasonable administrative interference, such as being told what ads you’re allowed to run. Further, The Pioneer’s website states:

The Pioneer is student-run. All decisions are made by a very dedicated undergraduate student leadership team with two principal divisions – business and editorial. The Editor-in-Chief is responsible for all content in The Pioneer. The Business Manager is responsible for all business affairs, including advertising, production, marketing, and finance.

A senior LIU administrator overruling the paper on its advertising decisions (which seem to be the province of the Business Manager, not the university’s chief academic officer) certainly seems to contradict this arrangement, not to mention LIU’s claim, on a page promoting the various student media opportunities at LIU, including The Pioneer, that "[a]t the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University, we encourage creativity and the ability to communicate freely."

With that in mind, FIRE’s experience defending the student press teaches that we should read Forestell’s comments with great skepticism.

If The Pioneer really is an autonomous publication, then it’s for The Pioneer, not Forestell, to decide whether or not the decision to run such ads constitutes a "poor business decision." More aggravating, however, is Forestell’s further justification that "it does not serve our students" to run ads for a peer institution. Why does FIRE harp on this argument? Because quite often FIRE has seen student governments claim that student newspapers aren’t providing a valuable "service" to the college community. That argument frequently serves as a prelude to student newspapers having their funding slashed shortly aftercoincidence!they run content critical of the student government. (See this FIRE case at the University of West Georgia for one example, and read Andrew’s post from earlier today about another free press case reported by SPLC, at the University of Memphis.)

Though Forestell may think he’s doing everyone a favor by prohibiting the ads, he’s already tumbling down the slippery slope of censorship. If the administration is willing to censor ads for peer institutions, it’s entirely plausible to expect it will exert similar pressures on the paper to censor articles critical of the university. (If that was the case and I was a student there, I may well consider going to Hofstra instead.)

Again, LIU may decide, as a private university, that it is fine taking this course and giving all of its students fewer freedoms of speech. As SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte notes, though, that doesn’t make it a wise choice.

"So if you’re at a private institution," LoMonte said, "obviously you can’t invoke the First Amendment, but you can always appeal to practical self-interest."

Anything that brings in money, he explained, should be viewed positively – even if the money is coming from competition. After all, LoMonte said, more competition is a good thing in the long run.

"If the campus bookstore or the campus housing can’t stack up against the competition," he added, "then maybe it needs to be improved."

A lesson LIU, apparently, could stand to learn.