Free Press 101

December 1, 2003

By Erich Wasserman at Arbiter Online

The recent seizure of an entire press run of the student newspaper, the Hampton Script, by Hampton University administrators is the latest in a sad history of censorship, and now even theft, of student publications by administrators on college and university campuses across the country.

At Hampton, acting President JoAnn Haysbert ordered an entire press run confiscated. What had the students done to provoke such a reprisal? Had they published hard-core pornography or incited riots by printing demonstrable falsehoods? No, they had merely done their job by reporting on hundreds of health code violations in the university’s cafeterias.

Administrators seized the newspapers after the paper’s student editors refused to succumb to President Haysbert’s demand that her letter of explanation for the violations run on the front page. They instead slated it to run on page three in accordance with the newspaper’s standard practice for handling letters-to-theeditor.

Hampton University is a private institution and thus is not bound to uphold the First Amendment’s guarantees of free speech or a free press. Most liberal arts institutions, however, honor these freedoms, because in our free society virtually all liberal arts colleges proclaim the value of academic freedom and freedom of speech.

Sadly, Hampton’s administration is far from alone in censoring free expression on campus. Nationally, there is a broad campus assault on those civil liberties that are respected in nearly every other venue of our society. America’s campus publications, often the training grounds for professional journalists, are routinely targeted when their content offends administrators.

In January 2003, editors of an Illinois student newspaper, The Innovator, sued Governors State University in University Park after administrators, upset by content critical of the university, halted publication and demanded to review all future issues before publication. This happened despite constitutional protections from such prior restraint censorship – GSU being a public institution – and despite GSU’s own policies granting students the authority to “determine content and format … without censorship or advance approval.” The GSU student journalists, like those at Hampton, had published stories about genuine campus issues, such as grade inflation and lavish administrative spending. The GSU case remains before the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

In October 2001, administrators at Tufts University threatened its student journal, The Primary Source, with defunding and dissolution after a sexual harassment complaint over a cartoon and written parody. A student group leader claimed that the journal’s parodic content had made her into a “sex object” after it mentioned her organization’s “tight … tank-tops” along with a cartoon of a woman dressed in tight clothing with the organization’s logo. Tufts backed down only when faced with public exposure and pressure.

At the University of California-San Diego in February 2002, a satirical student newspaper, The Koala, was nearly disbanded for poking fun at one of the campus’s more outspoken student leaders. Administrators responded to complaints from the offended student by holding a secret trial aimed to shut down the publication altogether.

What is occurring on America’s campuses is evidence of a profound misunderstanding of the concept of free expression by the same generation that prided itself on kindling the free speech and civil rights movements during its own spirited youth. Administrators believe they have the right and obligation to censor, very selectively, thoughts and ideas that make them or others uncomfortable, thus encouraging students to answer speech they disagree with not with opposing speech but rather with censorship and campus disciplinary charges. And what’s the lesson in that?

At Hampton University, a historically black institution, students have compromised. Given Editor Talia Buford’s public statements (“I’ve cried more in three days than I have in two years”) and other students on record as fearing suspension or expulsion for their public defense of free speech, it should come as no surprise that the students caved in to what can only be called prior restraint censorship: the students published President Haysbert’s letter on the front page of their newspaper.

In what is a hopeful sign that the larger society will not tolerate such tyranny on our campuses, the American Society of Newspaper Editors announced last week that it would withhold a $55,000 grant intended for Hampton’s Journalism School.

State universities are bound to respect constitutional freedoms, and those private universities that revere academic freedom should do no less. Freedom of expression isn’t something to be granted or withheld depending on the convenience and sensibilities of academic bureaucrats; that’s why it is a cherished principle. Freedom is not negotiable.

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Schools: Hampton University Governors State University Tufts University University of California, San Diego Cases: Governors State University: Censorship of Student Newspaper University of California at San Diego: Censorship of Student Satire Magazine Tufts University: Use of Sexual Harassment Allegations to Suppress Protected Speech