I am proud to welcome another great addition to FIRE’s team, Emily Guidry. Emily’s personal experience as a student newspaper editor demonstrates how petty and arbitrary university censorship can be:
I have been working at FIRE for two weeks now and I am thrilled to be part of an organization dedicated to defending civil liberties on university campuses. Ensuring freedom of speech and press for college students hits particularly close to home because of my own undergraduate experiences.
My university’s student newspaper, of which I was editor, tackled issues that were important to the student body and were usually met with little or no interference from administrators. I can recall, however, two instances from my time at Nicholls State University where students’ free speech rights took a back seat to the administration’s agenda.
First, there was the issue with the school’s swimming pool. For years, the rumor had circulated that the pool was a few inches too short to meet standard regulations, making the university unable to support a swim team or participate in conference events. The newspaper decided to do an unusual feature article about it, and we discovered that not only was the pool the wrong size, but it also had a large crack on the bottom that caused a continuous leak. Staff lifeguards informed us that they were instructed to keep water constantly pumping into the pool so it would always be full, obviously causing unnecessary expense to the university.
Members of the administration refused to speak with us. Others told us we were making a mountain out of a molehill and sensationalizing a trivial matter. Once the story broke and we showed that the university was losing money by failing to make repairs, some higher-ranking officials predictably tried to suppress our coverage by refusing to speak with our reporters. Several administrators made requests to review articles prior to their publication.
But we would not waver on our coverage of the issue; the bottom line was that our money was literally going down the drain. The problem was finally fixed: they drained the pool, mended the crack, and did away with the ever-present array of garden hoses pouring water into the pool around the clock. But the repairs happened only after we repeatedly pressed the issue and disturbed university officials enough that they threatened us with prior review while trying to repress our coverage of this embarrassing story as much as possible.
Another time, we ran a story on student drug use, a fairly widespread problem among college students. After the story ran, everything to my knowledge was fine. There were no angry phone calls and no hostile criticisms of the story, and frankly, I did not expect any. After all, as unfortunate as it is, drug use among college student is fairly common. Other university papers cover such issues, so why shouldn’t ours?
It would be an understatement to say I could not believe my ears when, a few days after the story ran, one of my professors told me that some high-ranking members of the university’s administration were discussing the possibility of expelling me from the university because I decided to publish the story. Because of the time of year of the story’s publication, many prospective students and their parents who were visiting the campus saw the story. The administration was worried that visitors would think our students were all drug users and that we had hurt their recruitment efforts. Luckily, the professor who relayed this information to me explained to the administration that their efforts to silence our paper were not only unwarranted, considering the fact that the piece was well-researched and well-written, but also that dismissing the students involved in the publication of the story because they did not like its content would be illegal.
Even at a small university like Nicholls, where there exists a strong sense of community among students and administrators, there were times when our rights as student journalists were casually discarded if they interfered with the image of the university the administration wanted to put forth. And while these instances were infrequent at my school, isn’t just one violation of a student’s free speech rights still one too many?