Not trashing the news: The job of campus censors

October 27, 2013

by David Danforth

Your school is Concordia College in Fargo, North Dakota. Along with 2,810 other students, you worship at the feet of the staff mascot, Kernel Cobber, a “personified corncob” listed by Huffington Post as the country’s ninth strangest mascot.

The campus surrounds a serene a bell tower. Its musical choices, from the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” includes five choirs, four bands, three jazz ensembles, two orchestras, two percussion ensembles and two handbell choirs.

And one campus paper, which got itself in trouble with Powers That Be for publishing a story on drinking at campus events. It appeared the very same week that high school seniors were on campus deciding whether to become freshman Cobbers.

Episodes of censorship at campus papers come in all flavors. They affect students, faculty advisors, administrators and plenty of readers. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education listed bucolic Concordia among 10 cases it was following last week.

Such battles over free speech are frequently comical and always educational. It’s not only the students who learn. More tragically, administrators – adults who are supposed to know better – learn the futility or portraying colleges differently than they really are.

Subjects of Kernel Cobber drink plenty of booze, and it’s no secret that binge and party drinking at colleges is big. So a front-page story in the Concordian paper on the subject came as no particular surprise.

The school’s admissions office decided to confiscate as many papers as it could round up near the campus center. It apparently opted for the “duck and cover” routine when confronted by the paper’s editor.

Concordia’s “vice president of enrollment,” Steve Schuetz, conceded that an unnamed employee was responsible, but apologized and termed the incident not a “coordinated event” by his office.

That didn’t convince senior editor Emma Connell, who noted that admissions types favor “glossy brochures of Happy Cobbers” over reality.

Any student paper’s faculty advisor is caught in the middle in such episodes. He or she is often suspended or demoted by administrators. Concordia’s Catherine McMullen didn’t suffer such a fate, noting that the paper isn’t “censored by administrators” and that the episode was a learning experience.

Many colleges have long learned to cut their student papers lots of slack. Frequent “codes of ethics” appear. They have a common theme. If everyone does exactly what’s expected, there’s lots of arguing and blogging, but no one gets hurt. At Concordia, editor Connell deftly took the middle road. She defended the paper’s freedom. This leaves college presidents free to criticize their papers, thus milking alumni giving.

That’s how U.S. colleges endure their bizarre outcroppings of free speech, which include advice on dispensing the perfect blowjob and questioning the financing of college athletics. One editor kept his job even after reporting that a respected professor had been picked up in a child porn sting one county over.

The rules did not work at Louisiana’s Grambling State two weeks ago. Grambling learned the hard way that reports on campus conditions would emerge whether authorities try to quash them or not.

Grambling State has a legendary football team with, until recently, a legendary coach. It was also hit hard when its state legislature severely cut school budgets, including their athletic programs.

The online editor of the school’s Gramblinite knew an open secret about the dilapidated athletic facilities on campus. They were so bad that reports of mold and staph infections abounded. The editor, David Lankster, invoked the quick cut of a scalpel. He tweeted photos of the facility. For this, he was suspended, accused of violating a policy against posting “opinion-based” statements. Lankster responded that it was clear he was reporting the opinions of the football players.

Kimberly Monroe, the paper’s opinion editor, was suspended after she helped organize a student rally over the subject. She violated a school code of ethics (common for journalists) against becoming personally involved in an episode. Monroe said a school official had asked her to edit a student body president’s column on athletic facilities, which included the college president’s email address.

Grambling officialdom learned soon enough what was to happen. The story exploded when the players revolted, forfeiting a game. The story has been all over the networks and papers all week. Photos of the facilities would have emerged whether by tweet or column, no matter that Lankster had used his Twitter account.

But Grambling State resorted to a silly excuse. The paper’s website reports that it is a “laboratory function” of the school’s Mass Communication’s department. This role gives the school more authority to regulate it than if it were wholly student-run.

The national media descended on Grambling all week, awaiting the school’s next big game. The controversy cast a new light on political wrangling among state politicians who use the budget as a ploy to get what they want.

Most of the people caught up in the episodes at Grambling State and Concordia still have their jobs. The stories emerged anyway.

Even the Happy Cobbers are serene. Their mascot, still among the land’s 10 strangest, isn’t as weird as Sammy the Banana Slug at UC Santa Cruz.

View this article at Aspen Daily News.


Schools: Grambling State University