Syracuse University head shuts down student TV station

October 27, 2005

NEW YORK —The student-run television station at Syracuse University was shut down last week because administrators said one show on the station continually violated university policy.

Chancellor Nancy Cantor revoked the status of HillTV last Thursday as a recognized student organization in a meeting with the student staff. The revocation has sparked outcry from HillTV alumni. Staffers said they appealed the decision.

The controversy has centered on a show called "Over the Hill," which went on the air less than a year ago, said Steven Kovach, news editor of The Daily Orange, the student newspaper at Syracuse. The show made light of eating disorders, date rape and lynching, among other issues, according to an article in The Post Standard, a community newspaper based in Syracuse, N.Y.

Because Syracuse is a private university, administrators there do not have the same constitutional limitations in censoring student media found at public institutions. However, some say that does not make the censorship any less of a problem.

"I find this to be censorship at its worst, at a place where censorship should be liberal," said alumnus Matthew Berry in an article in the student newspaper.

"If this had been done at a public school, it would have been constitutionally impermissible. A private school that holds itself as a protector of free speech should hold itself to at least the same standards as a government school," said David French, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. FIRE is dedicated to defending individual rights at colleges and universities, according to its Web site.

Administrators said the show had made students fearful and angry.

"Of course I believe in the First Amendment and the independence of the student media, but at some point you need to think about the painful impact on others," Cantor said in a Post Standard article.

In a letter to alumni, Assistant Vice President Donald Doerr wrote that the revocation was not motivated by a desire to censor.

"It’s important to note that this is not about freedom of speech, but rather repeated violations of university policy that has impinged on the well-being of our community," he said.

French said taking the channel down just because it was not politically correct was wrong.

"There should be no censorship on freedom of expression just because it’s found to be offensive," he said.

Richard Levy, former general manager of the station, said it is important to remember that ‘Over the Hill’ was just one of many shows on HillTV.

"The inappropriate content of ‘Over the Hill’ does not reflect the hard work and positive content in other shows at the station," Levy said in a public statement Wednesday.

French said canceling the station seemed like "an absurd overreaction."

"The fact that you are willing to punish the whole HillTV community is absurd. You’ve just made it sound as if everyone that presently works on HillTV’s many news, sports and entertainment shows and everyone who came out of HillTV is a racist, insensitive person," wrote alumnus Matthew Coe in a letter to the editor in The Daily Orange.

According to Levy, the station was aware of the controversy surrounding the show and was taking action to address it internally when the administration stepped in. Levy said he had planned to cancel the show, rewrite the station’s content codes and create an ombudsman position to address viewer concerns, among other reforms to address the negative feedback.

Levy said that he was still not exactly clear how the station had violated the code of conduct.

"We’ve been told that we violated the code of conduct but we were never given specific instances," he said.

University spokesman Kevin Morrow said the harm done to the community was displayed in a forum last Thursday night where he said 1,200 students, faculty and staff turned out to express their outrage and talk about how "Over the Hill" had adversely affected them.

An open letter written by Cantor said, "The executive staff of HillTV had every chance to answer the charges against their organization at my meeting with them" on Oct. 20.

But Levy said the letter revoking the station’s status had already been typed and signed before the students met with the chancellor.

"We were not expecting this to happen," he said. "When I was asked to meet with the chancellor, it was supposed to be a friendly meeting … Before we even sat down with the chancellor, we were notified that the locks had been changed, and in our meeting with the chancellor we were given the letter revoking our status."

Students from the other programs cancelled on HillTV will still have an opportunity to produce their shows by submitting them for prior review by a faculty adviser, Morrow said.

Prior review by a faculty adviser will be the in place for the rest of the school year until a task force makes its recommendation in June, Morrow said.

Levy said the former members of HillTV made a written appeal with Dean of Student Services Anastasia Urtz Tuesday. He said he was surprised by the process and believed there should have been more formalized hearings and input from the station before revoking the organization’s status.

"I feel this sets a very dangerous precedent that any student organization can be dissolved in this way without a hearing and without having time to prepare a defense," Levy said.

French said his advice for other private school student media facing censorship is to publicize the events.

"Remind the school of its own promises and when the school breaks those promises, make those facts known to the media… Once a school has shown it’s closed to the marketplace of ideas, that should be known," he said.

Schools: Syracuse University