“The press was protected so that it could bare the secrets of government and inform the people.” – New York Times Co. v. United States
There are many obvious benefits to a free press on campus. Unfortunately, far too often, student newspapers fall victim to censorship.
Student Press Censorship — What Does it Look Like?
Defunding & Derecognition
Student newspapers often require access to funds, resources, office space, and formal recognition as a registered student organization to successfully operate. When they publish a controversial investigation or opinion piece, those resources are too often the first target for aggrieved administrators and fellow students who hope that removing access to those resources will deter student journalists from publishing again.
A university doesn’t always need to punish student journalists to control what they print. Sometimes, the threat of punishment implied by an investigation, or the stress caused by the process of the investigation, is enough to pressure students into staying silent rather than risking harm to their studies or future careers. Federal courts have concluded that investigations into protected speech can constitute violations of the First Amendment, even if they don’t result in formal punishment. In Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957), the Supreme Court noted that government investigations “are capable of encroaching upon the constitutional liberties of individuals” and have an “inhibiting effect in the flow of democratic expression.”
Theft & Destruction
Newspaper theft remains one of the most ineffective ways to stop the spread of a story, but that hasn’t stopped targets of unflattering coverage from trying it — or from learning a well-deserved lesson about the “Streisand Effect.” Although newspaper theft doesn’t accomplish its perpetrators’ goal in the age of internet news, it still can be a thorn in the side of student journalists forced to cope with the loss of their time, money, and resources.
Some censorship efforts are subtle and difficult to detect. Others? Not so much. Though they should know better, that hasn’t stopped administrators at a number of universities from unashamedly demanding that student journalists censor their work or avoid covering certain topics to preserve the university’s reputation.
Prior review and prior restraint are among the most noxious forms of censorship. The former occurs when administrators enjoy the power to review material before it’s communicated or published; the latter when they are able to remove material before it can be published. Prior restraint is so frowned upon that the Supreme Court of the United States has observed that the “chief purpose” of the First Amendment is to prevent prior restraint.
Pressure on Advisers
At a public university or a private institution that makes free speech commitments, administrators are prohibited from taking action to control, chill, or punish student media content based on a dislike of the expression in which students have engaged. That includes retaliatory action taken against advisers, often faculty members, who counsel student journalists on writing, editing, and publishing their work. But that hasn’t stopped universities from punishing advisers for doing their jobs instead of turning student journalists into university mouthpieces.
Media Relations Policies
Faculty members are often experts in their fields and can be useful resources for student, local, and national media outlets in explaining complicated issues to the public. But some universities have crafted restrictive policies that frustrate the ability of faculty members to speak with the media, effectively imposing a gag order. Student journalists — who are increasingly important members of local media, too — have found themselves impacted by such policies.
Fight for your rights!
As a student journalist, you know how to spot threats to press freedom on your campus. But what should you do when you encounter them? First, develop a concrete understanding of your rights — whether at a private or public university — and the policies and safeguards that protect them at your institution. If your university does not offer policies that protect student journalists, or maintains policies that do the opposite, be proactive and advocate for policy reform at your college before it’s necessary. FIRE can help with that.
The second step is to document every meeting and all correspondence — like emails, letters, and phone calls — shared between newspaper staff and university administrators when you believe you’re experiencing an act of censorship. Documentation can be vital in exposing inappropriate or unconstitutional interference with students’ rights.
Finally, contact FIRE by submitting a case online or by calling our student press hotline at 1-833-451-FIRE when efforts to censor your newspaper or its staff are underway or have been threatened. We’ve defended the rights of thousands of students and may be able to help you, too.
Student journalists play an essential role in ensuring transparency in institutions that often reject it. FIRE is here to make sure unconstitutional or illiberal barriers don’t stand in their way.
- Under Pressure: The Warning Signs of Student Newspaper Censorship
- FIRE’s Guide to Free Speech on Campus
- Learn to spot the warning signs of censorship on campus.
- Poster: Seven Warning Signs of Press Censorship
- Poster: This is What Free Speech Looks Like
- Module and video: “The Role of Student Publications on Campus”
- Facing potential censorship? Submit a case online or call our student press hotline at 1-833-451-FIRE.
- Have questions about free speech issues on your campus? FIRE is here to help. FIRE experts are standing by for interviews. Contact us at email@example.com.