Many student journalists are being taught an unfortunate lesson by college administrators and their fellow students lately: Don’t publish anything that might offend anyone.
That this advice is antithetical to a free press on campus, and that journalists cannot be held responsible for how their readers react to opinions they publish, doesn’t seem to matter all that much to the people demanding they be censored.
These themes have played out at a number of colleges and universities recently.
As you have probably heard by now, student newspaper The Wesleyan Argus faced a petition last month calling for its defunding and destruction after it published an op-ed by student and staff writer Bryan Stascavage that criticized the Black Lives Matter movement. Since this op-ed was published and the petition gained traction on campus, the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) has been scrambling to create what Alex Garcia, WSA member and co-president of student entrepreneurship group Kai Wesleyan, calls a “well-thought-out and structural change” to the student press on Wesleyan’s campus.
On Sunday night, after multiple meetings about ways to increase diversity in student publications, the WSA voted 27-0 (with four abstentions) in favor of a resolution affirming certain components of a “Stipends, Academic Credit, and Digitalization of Campus Publications” proposal put forth by Garcia. It appears that, for this year at least, the Argus’ funding remains unchanged. Next year, however, could be a different story.
Garcia’s proposal envisions a ranking system that will give paid work-study positions and Facebook advertising credits to four campus newspapers based on readership success as defined by student polls and Google analytics. The proposal states:
Each year we spend over $30,000 dollars on printing and printing related costs just for the Wesleyan Argus alone. This proposal cuts 56% of printing funding, and proposes the following use of the money.
- $15,000 Work Study Positions for Student publications (20 positions).
- $2,000 Targeted Facebook Ads that will make student publications more visible than ever.
- $0 for installation of 12 monitors in Exley and Usdan that cycle through articles submitted from student publications. (Spare monitors are already in stock at ITS).
The WSA is creating a working group with members of the campus community, including Argus staff, to discuss potential ways to fund these work-study positions and Facebook ads. If no new suggestions can be agreed upon, the Argus will lose its print funding, which will be redistributed amongst the Argus and the other student newspapers at Wesleyan. If this is the case, the Argus, which currently receives a $30,000 budget, will receive somewhere between $13,000 and $25,100. Both the WSA’s resolution and the proposal also discuss “reducing paper waste,” a tone-deaf characterization at best, meaning the Argus will be printing less papers after the end of this school year.
No matter the outcome of the working group, the Argus will have a less visible print presence on campus as a result of students’ reaction to a column. While the WSA’s plan to digitize student press at Wesleyan is not inherently troubling, the fact that the efforts to reduce the Argus’ “paper waste” have gained traction so quickly after members of the student body threatened to destroy physical copies of the Argus is too difficult to ignore. Worst of all, the WSA’s decision to give the student body power to determine campus newspapers’ funding forces the Argus to print only what students want to hear or face a significant funding cut.
Earlier this month, Brown University’s student newspaper, The Brown Daily Herald, experienced a similar protest when it published two op-eds from student Emma Maier. Writing under the pen name M. Dzhali Maier, Maier wrote one editorial on subject of “biological differences among the races and the other of which suggested that Native Americans should be thankful for the colonial arrival in America.” The Herald’s staff published an editorial the next day apologizing for the “continued confusion and hurt” caused by the op-ed. Despite the apology, a backlash swiftly followed from students who were angered by the content of the op-ed.
Former FIRE intern Daniella Dichter and FIRE Student Network member Rohan Gulati rightfully argued that the Herald “should not shy away from publishing ideas that inflame, provoke and offend, nor should it bow to the pressure of student outrage and apologize for publishing contentious opinions.” However, many other students on campus felt that the Herald should take greater responsibility for Maier’s op-eds. In “A Statement from a Collective of Asian/Asian American and Pacific Islander Students,” a number of students and student organizations explained their opinion of the Herald’s role on campus [emphasis added]:
We also acknowledge that no apology can sufficiently rectify the violence enacted by The Herald in silencing, speaking for, and erasing Native and Indigenous students. A publication of such prominence and prestige is obligated to maintain a certain quality that includes, at minimum, factual accuracy and a meticulous editorial process. The Herald is obligated to amplify the voices of marginalized students, and obligated to ensure it does not provide a platform for ableist, classist, cissexist, heterosexist, imperialist, racist, and sexist content.
This puts the Herald in an impossible position. Some students, after all, might consider support of feminism to be sexist, and others might view the advocacy of one candidate over another as classist or imperialist, but many others would not. The students supporting this statement seem not to recognize the subjectivity of the demands they are placing upon the Herald. Words like “sexist” and “classist” often have different meanings to different people and the Herald’s staff cannot, and should not, be expected to make editorial decisions based on whether its content might be considered offensive to some students.
Five students published a joint op-ed in the Herald yesterday making similar claims to those in “A Statement from a Collective of Asian/Asian American and Pacific Islander Students” and arguing that the varied responses to Maier’s op-eds are creating a “misguided debate about free speech.” The students then go on to state:
We are taught to extol the virtues of free speech. White people in particular are taught that our voices are always worth being heard. When we believe in free speech, we do so because it works in our favor. The problem is that freedom of speech is not a universal reality. Free speech assumes a level playing field among speakers that does not exist. Power always affects interactions and what people can and do say in the context of a given relationship, institution or society. In this case, at an elite, predominantly white university, race and class are inseparable from any social interaction, let alone the curation of content in an established campus publication.
The biggest problem here is the misrepresentation of the nature of free speech. People who believe in free speech only when it works in their favor do not actually support free speech.
The students are right when they claim that “censorship has a particular meaning that has been lost in these debates,” but perhaps not in the way that they intended. Censorship has lost its meaning in this debate if students believe that the “protection of free speech” is what’s forcing avoidance of “serious engagement with racism.” The history of civil rights movements in this country demonstrates that it is censorship, not the free exchange of ideas, that has hindered serious engagement with difficult topics.
University of Alabama
Another recent threat to student press at the hands of students occurred last week at the University of Alabama (UA), where the editorial board at the student paper, The Crimson White, was punished after it angered some members of the student body by daring to publish an opinion.
Crimson White editor-in-chief Sean Landry reports that last Thursday he saw male students, whom he suspects were fraternity pledges, stealing 300-400 newspapers, which amounts to approximately a $300 loss for the paper. The offending pieces that likely inspired the theft were, according to Landry, “an editorial cartoon that criticized hazing on campus—featuring a man in a batting stance with a bat, saying, ‘Welcome to the brotherhood’—and also possibly an editorial about a lack of civic engagement on campus.”
Landry filed a complaint with the UA police, who have promised to research all available leads. Newspaper theft is a crime. Like the threats of newspaper theft and destruction at Wesleyan and other campuses, this theft reveals the reality too many student newspapers must confront when considering whether to print controversial material. If they print an opinion—any opinion—that has the potential to provoke disagreement, there’s a chance that students will destroy their words rather than respond to them.
Louisiana State University
Students aren’t the only members of the campus community who sometimes wish to control what newspapers can and cannot print—administrators are often guilty as well. Last week, FIRE’s Alex Morey wrote about an alarming development at Louisiana State University’s (LSU’s) Law Center, which recently created a task force to address improving “quantitative and qualitative diversity” on campus:
In a report submitted to the law school late last month, the task force—selected last year by former Law Center chancellor and dean Jack Weiss and “comprised of faculty, students, alumni and community leaders”—makes more than a dozen recommendations for administrators and faculty to increase campus diversity. The most alarming of these proposals is the suggestion that the law school’s newspaper, The Civilian, be held to a set of “standards,” including extensive prior content review, prior restraint, and editorial control by multiple layers of administrators. These are the hallmarks of censorship that too often target the free press on America’s campuses.
Student newspapers that are required to give editorial control to administrators can become their mouthpieces far too easily. Putting administrators with an agenda on the editorial board of a student publication makes it difficult, if not impossible, for that publication to remain impartial.
Anyone, including college administrators and students, who wishes to control what students publish cannot do so while maintaining the pretense of having a free student press on campus.