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Fall casework of FIRE’s SPFI shows student press freedom threatened across U.S. campuses

reporter with press badge taking notes

Fall 2022 presented many hurdles for members of the student press on college and university campuses across the country. These problems originated from all levels of the academic community — from administrators’ overbearing rules to backlash from student peers. Through casework at FIRE’s Student Press Freedom Initiative, we’ve identified a couple of trends that characterize the current landscape for the student press. 

Restrictive press policies

Administrators haven’t backed down on policies limiting student journalists’ freedom to report. Perhaps the most historically populous category of SPFI cases, these restrictions take the form of both written, established rules as well as practices enforced at the whims of administrators. 

Restrictions might include: limiting student journalists’ ability to speak directly with university sources, either by telling journalists they can’t reach out to employees directly, by telling employees they can’t speak to the press without permission, or by outright banning employees from giving interviews; prior review of journalists’ questions or sources’ answers; permitting only certain kinds of interviews, such as by limiting correspondence only to email; and prohibiting newsgathering on campus property. 

Aerial view of the Montclair State University campus

VICTORY: Montclair State clarifies resident assistants may make ‘negative’ comments to media

While having just one of these rules is a bad look for a university, Yale University stands out as particularly egregious, maintaining policies and practices reflecting all of these. 

On Sept. 20, the Yale Daily News published an article detailing administrators’ attempts to control narratives about the university, with its Office of Public Affairs and Communications at the center of a web of policies and practices impacting student journalists’ freedom to report on campus issues. 

The article opens with describing how administrators kicked Yale Daily News reporters out of the law school campus when they were trying to cover a recent controversy. It then goes on to describe the various ways administrators have inhibited journalists’ reporting, such as instructing staff to never respond to the Yale Daily News without prior permission, requiring journalists to submit their questions for sources days in advance, and condensing multiple sources’ responses into a single pre-approved statement. 

FIRE wrote Yale on Nov. 29 to voice our concerns about these policies. Restrictions on the press impart a layered harm, we told the school. These policies rob students of their expressive rights, whether as journalists reporting on campus life or as employees speaking in their personal capacity on public issues. The harm extends to the expressive rights of employees, including faculty, staff, and even administrators themselves. Ultimately, the policies hurt the university, damaging its reputation within the community for transparency and trust. 

As we wrote in our letter

A corollary of the right to free speech is the public’s right to know. In striking down prior restraints on government employee speech — policies and practices structurally similar to Yale’s — the Supreme Court recognized that such bans impose “a significant burden on the public’s right to read and hear what Government employees would otherwise have written and said.” Student media is an important conduit for the public’s right to know about what happens on America’s college campuses. Courts have recognized that the media act as “surrogates for the public” in keeping a watchful eye on the operations of government and restraining institutional abuse of power.

Yale isn’t the only school with press policies we pushed back against this fall. In the past two weeks, we sent letters to American University, Fordham University, and Santa Ana College demanding they reconsider policies and practices limiting the rights of the free press. 

Good reporting shines light on the truth and the will of the people, including the people you disagree with.

FIRE recognized an uptick in these restrictive policies in response to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, as schools sought consistent institutional messaging related to the sudden changes to daily life and their communities. However, the specter of these policies continues to haunt the student press, even though much of campus life has returned to pre-pandemic routine. SPFI will continue to watch for these bad policies and advocate for the student press at schools that maintain them.

Misunderstanding the role of the press

To quote broadcast journalist Walter Cronkite, “Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.” We at SPFI believe this to be true — so much so that we printed it in bold on our promotional tote bags! The press feeds into democracy by educating the public and enabling it to form its own opinions and act — or vote — accordingly. However, reports from this fall suggest students in higher ed might not embrace this value as readily as their journalist peers. 

Take, for example, what happened this fall to a student journalist at Princeton University who covered a protest on campus: One student source filed a university-enforced no-contact order against her because the student felt the article mischaracterized her organization. Under the order, the reporter couldn’t study on the same library floor as the source, let alone continue to report on the source’s organization. 

University of Northern Iowa Campanile Bell Tower

VICTORY: After FIRE letter, University of Northern Iowa clarifies resident assistants may speak with media

Or consider the student journalist at University of Arizona, who published a critical op-ed about a fellow student’s popular TikTok account in September. Unhappy with the piece, the TikToker posted a video stating, “There’s no person I hate and have less respect for than people who make a living and make their platform off of s----ing on others,” and shared the journalist’s personal phone number and Instagram account with his thousands of followers. The followers then proceeded to harass the student journalist for weeks. 

When it comes to “s----ing” on the student press, fellow students sometimes take to censorial actions like doxxing or harassing student journalists. These responses aren’t just counterspeech — the appropriate response when you encounter speech with which you disagree. Instead, these students are throwing stones at reporters for doing earnest work. 

This response to journalism chills student journalists from taking on controversial stories. For the press to serve democracy, reporters shouldn’t feel threatened anytime they write something that challenges the majority opinion or the powers that be in their communities. Good reporting shines light on the truth and the will of the people, including the people you disagree with. 

At SPFI, we hope to empower all student journalists to find and protect their voices, especially when their writing evokes strong feelings from their peers: That’s when we know it’s effective.

Problems with campus culture at large

In sum, the backlash student journalists face from school administrators and fellow students is a consequence of the troublesome culture at large on college and university campuses. 

Virginia Military Institute

Virginia Military Institute: Administrators Interfere With Independent Student Newspaper’s Operations

Case Detail

This fall, FIRE saw numerous college and university communities demonstrate intolerance toward speech with which they disagree or deem controversial, no matter if those views were expressed in articles in the student paper or by other sources like student organizations, guest speakers, email listservs, and protests. These findings suggest that the general trend of intolerance on college campuses isn’t slowing down anytime soon — and it doesn’t bode well for attitudes toward the student press specifically.

Despite our grim reflection of the state of free speech on campus, we at SPFI and FIRE remain hopeful and continue to push for progress. SPFI’s work is more valuable now than ever, and we aren’t going anywhere. To the thousands of student journalists across the country putting in the crucial work to educate and improve your communities: We hope 2023 doesn’t bring you any trouble, but we’re here for you if it does

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734). If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533).

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