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Former student journalists on FIRE’s staff talk about their experiences wielding the power of the written word: Part 1

Student Press Freedom Initiative

This week, in recognition of Student Press Freedom Day on Thursday, Feb. 24, FIRE will be celebrating all things student journalism. To kick us off, we sat down with ten FIRE staffers who were student journalists when they were in college to find out more about their experiences. Today’s post includes excerpts from the first five of those interviews. Tomorrow, we will post the second installment! 

Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Greg Lukianoff

Greg Lukianoff
Robert Shibley

Robert Shibley
Molly Nocheck

Molly Nocheck
Lindsay Rank

Lindsie Rank
Greg Greubel

Greg Greubel

Greg Lukianoff (top)

Greg is FIRE’s president and CEO. While he was an undergraduate at American University, Greg was a reporter, editor, and columnist for the student newspaper, The Eagle.

Q: What brought you to student journalism, and to an interest in free speech?

A: I initially reported things on campus in my first year–I was a regular campus reporter. I moved to the metro beat, which meant that I was covering news in D.C. proper. When I started doing the metro beat, there was some interest in the changing regulations related to sexual assault coming out of the government, and I was tasked to cover what those developments were because they had implications for the Department of Education and, therefore, on campus. There was a female attorney there from the ACLU and she was pointing out all the different threats to due process that were present in the law, and I was so impressed. I was like, “Wow, you’re taking a very unpopular stance here but you’re pointing out that there are serious problems with this and that’s brave and that’s principled, and I really admire it.” This was America really walking the walk. So that experience really changed my whole outlook on what I wanted to do with my career. I will say that my experience as an undergraduate reporter at American University led directly to me being a First Amendment advocate and led directly to me going to law school to hyper-specialize in the First Amendment, which is ultimately what brought me to FIRE.

Q: Did you ever self-censor as a columnist or as a reporter?

A: Oh I’m sure I did. Certain kinds of self-censorship are just parts of everyday life, so as a technical answer, yes, I’m sure I did some degree of that, because everyone does some degree of that. Did I do it to the extent to which I think journalists are feeling the pressure to do it now on campus? Not at all. I think that a lot of administrations use extremely heavy-handed tactics now. They take advantage of the desire of student journalists to be in good standing with the administration. I think that they have gotten more skilled at manipulating that. 

Robert Shibley (top)

Robert is FIRE’s executive director. While he was an undergraduate at Duke University, Robert was a reporter and then production editor for The Duke Review, a student-run conservative publication. It was the only newspaper on campus prohibited from distributing its issues in the official newspaper boxes, because Duke refused to recognize it as a student organization. 

Q: How did the censorship that you experienced as a student journalist affect you and others working for your paper? 

A: The immediate effect was certainly limiting the reach of ideas. I think that had a couple of different effects. The first obviously being that to the extent that we wanted to say things that went against the campus mainstream, it was a fairly effective way of making sure that many of the students were never exposed either to those ideas or to the fact that there are other Duke students who may have felt the same way they did and were willing to speak out about it. So it was an effective way, I think, to help isolate dissenters on campus and make them feel like they were more in the minority than they likely were.

Q: How does your experience as a student journalist inform how you do your current job at FIRE?

A: I think it informs my work at FIRE because I’m able to empathize with the fact that these rights are sacred for every individual and everybody has a different experience and something a little bit different to say. It also reminds me that even if it doesn’t seem important in the grand scheme of things, even if you know a particular controversy or episode of censorship doesn’t seem that important, that is their inalienable right that is being compromised and it helps me remember that censorship made a big enough impression on me when it happened to me that it effectively set the course for my career.

Molly Nocheck (top)

Molly is the vice president of Student Outreach at FIRE. While she was an undergraduate at Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Molly was a reporter for WOUB Public Media, a broadcast journalism outlet. 

Q: Was there a favorite story that you covered either in written journalism or in broadcast?

A: I would say my favorite thing that I did was when I studied abroad in Zambia. It was part of a journalism study abroad, and we produced a documentary about our time there. I had an opportunity to shadow the local news station and write some stories and just observe how they produced and operated their news station.

Q: Was there a time when something that you broadcasted or wrote instigated significant change on campus or started interesting conversations or discussion?

A: As an avid op-ed writer, I think that I was able to start some discourse on issues that I felt strongly about. I always like to share with students the importance of writing op-eds because even though it might not feel like anyone cares and not a lot of people read the paper, people do. I heard feedback on the pieces that I wrote all the time, that I got under people’s skin, or that people were paying attention to certain things. I think that it was, at times, therapeutic to write op-eds, and it also signals to readers of the paper that people are engaged in a community and they are noticing things and drawing attention to things.

Lindsie Rank (top)

Lindsie is FIRE’s student press counsel. While she was an undergraduate at Whitworth University, Lindsie was an arts and culture writer, a news editor, and an arts and culture editor for the student newspaper, The Whitworthian

Q: Did you experience censorship in any of the roles you filled at your university’s student newspaper? 

A: The only time I faced any sort of administrative pushback was when I was a news editor and we were doing a story about faculty members who were quitting or retiring early and were attributing their dissatisfaction to the provost. The provost was really upset and called me into his office. He said something like “I wouldn’t want to see anything happen to your record.” I remember calling my mom; I was so mad, but also indignant. 

Q: What advice would you give to student journalists in the United States?

A: A couple things. I would say, number one: Know who your allies are. So both on-campus allies, like people like your advisor — if your advisor is an ally, not every advisor is — and people like your editors. But also look off-campus, to people like alumni from your publication, but also organizations like FIRE and the Student Press Law Center. You don’t have to go through it alone. There are other people out there who just want to help you and can be an ear or can offer resources or advocacy to help you get through situations. And not just censorship situations, but situations like if you have questions about trademark, or libel, or copyright. So I would say that’s probably my biggest piece of advice: knowing who your allies are and how to call on them. 

Greg Greubel (top)

Greg is an attorney at FIRE. While he was an undergraduate at the University of Northern Iowa, Greg was an opinion columnist for The Northern Iowan and host of a talk radio show called “Untitled.” 

Q: While you were a student journalist at UNI, other students who disagreed with what you published or said on your radio show did not try to silence you but instead tried to engage with you about the issues. How do you think that helped you evolve as an individual and as a free speech advocate?

A: I would say that it was instructive to see that I write something and it creates a reaction and I get told I’m wrong. That helps you try and be better in your arguments. I can’t imagine what it would have been like to have written something and then the response be that the university senate passes a resolution saying “you can’t talk anymore” or something like that. It informed my views on how things ought to be and also gave me that personal experience of feeling like your ideas are going to be challenged so make sure you know what you’re talking about. It felt good to express myself in that way and to respond to arguments that were counter to what I was saying.

Q: What advice would you give to student journalists?

A: I would say, don’t be afraid. Do the job that you know you need to do. And come to FIRE if something bad happens. Real journalists doing real work is very, very important for a democracy. You need a journalist to tell you what’s going on. It doesn’t matter what sort of political system you live in. Keep going. Follow your passion. Understand you’re taking a risk but it’s worth the while.

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