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After Giving Accepted Students a Taste of Campus Censorship, SUNY Albany Recommits to Freedom of Expression

Every spring, colleges and universities across the country host accepted students and their families on campus tours to give them a sense of student life at their institutions. Sadly (though perhaps unsurprisingly, given trends elsewhere), a recent two-day open house at the State University of New York at Albany (SUNY Albany) gave accepted students the inside scoop on an unappealing aspect of campus life: the willingness of some to engage in censorship.

According to the Times Union, a SUNY Albany administrator directed copies of the student paper, which contained a front-page story covering a rise in campus sexual assaults, be hidden from accepted students and their families. Fortunately, the university has acknowledged its error and is working to prevent next year’s class of incoming freshmen from having a similar experience.

On April 5, the Albany Student Press, an independent student paper at SUNY Albany, published a story with the headline, “Sexaul assault reports up 200 percent at UAlbany.” As the Times Union describes, copies of that issue “were taken out of their racks in the Lecture Center Concourse, which hosted talks on the school’s academics and student life for accepted students and their families Saturday.” Although the removal was executed by student tour guides, the Times Union reports that an administrator in the undergraduate admissions office made the call to hide and dispose of copies of the paper. SUNY Albany Provost James R. Stellar has confirmed the report.

Kassie Parisi, the paper’s editor-in-chief, told the Times Union, “I understand it was a jarring headline, but it was an important story. I was irritated and angry that people would so flippantly dismiss that and try to hide it.” Parisi’s peers, it seems, disagreed. As the Times Union details:

The message [to remove the papers], sent Friday afternoon, appeared to circulate to fellow tour guides on mobile messaging application GroupMe. It read, in part: “If anyone is in the [Lecture Center Concourse] today and sees the ASP that says something about assault. Please remove them. Grab a stack and recycle them. I felt horrible doing it but it’s not something we want to welcome our families with this weekend.

It’s good to know the tour guide “felt horrible” censoring the Albany Student Press. But his or her actions, in conjunction with the other tour guides and administrator, served to welcome accepted students and their parents with something much worse than a potentially alarming headline—censorship. Indeed, as representatives of the admissions office and those largely responsible for presenting the university in its best light, they failed in their roles by violating SUNY Albany’s own principles. As stated in the university’s Policy for Freedom of Expression:

The University reaffirms its commitment to the principle that the widest possible scope for freedom of expression is the foundation of an institution dedicated to vigorous inquiry, robust debate, and the continuous search for a proper balance between freedom and order. . . . The University believes that censorship is always suspect, that attempts to discourage constitutionally protected expression may be antithetical to the University’s essential missions: to discover new knowledge and to educate.

In a statement released Saturday, Provost Stellar says, “The decision was an inappropriate judgment call, and inconsistent with our values as a University. The free and open exchange of data and ideas is a principle on which we, and all universities, stand.” Since SUNY Albany is a public university bound by the First Amendment’s protections of free speech and a free press, this is reassuring.

Even better, however, is the university’s stated commitment to respect freedom of expression moving forward. In an interview with FIRE, Karl Luntta, director of media relations for SUNY Albany, clarified the university’s response to the incident.

“As soon as we found out, our first action was to go into the lecture centers and we found the papers,” Luntta said. “We replaced them and returned them to the stands that very same day.” Luntta said the school is still investigating the incident. “We’re trying to work out what happened and trying to determine the sequence of events and where the call was made.”

Most importantly, Luntta said, is SUNY Albany’s renewed commitment to a free press on campus.

“What is coming out of this is we are going to endeavor to do training with undergraduate admissions and others on campus to talk with them about issues around the press and freedoms of the press and freedom of expression,” he said. “We want to reinforce and talk with staffers and the people in various offices around campus about the importance of what happened here.”

The goal, Luntta explained, is to equip staff members to recognize that there are “issues beyond the issues you immediately see that take some explaining.” In other words, campus issues like sexual assault are—as Luntta called them—“a teachable moment” for tour guides to give accepted students and their parents context. Put simply, he said staffers should be trained on "sensitive" issues so they know "what they can do about that and how they can discuss that with potential students and parents.”

While it’s regrettable that an administrator at SUNY Albany saw fit to call for the hiding and disposal of the student paper, FIRE welcomes the university’s proactive response. The best lesson for both current and prospective students to take away from this experience is to see the university respond by engaging with others and not hiding from news that doesn’t make its way into the university’s brochures. Censorship may seem appealing in the short term, but, as FIRE has argued, it only causes more harm—as SUNY Albany has now learned. Though the end of the semester is near, we will continue to monitor the situation. FIRE hopes SUNY Albany rises to the occasion, as it has promised.

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