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Free the Press in 2008

Freedom of the press remains endangered on U.S. college campuses. Even at public universities, where the school acts in the name of the government, student newspapers and their editors often face disciplinary action for exercising their constitutional rights.

Two recent cases that come to mind arose at Colorado State University (CSU) and Central Connecticut State University (CCSU). In The Rocky Mountain Collegian at CSU, a staff editorial used an expletive in very large print. The editor-in-chief faced disciplinary action but, after FIREand his attorney intervened, the editor-in-chief received only an admonishment. Like almost all such cases, there should not even have been hearings for such constitutionally protected—if socially imprudent—language. A student journalist should not need to call on a lawyer to defend the constitutional exercise of his rights.

The Recorder at CCSU faced complaints over a controversial cartoon. The paper had barely escaped punishment this spring over an opinion piece that many on campus had found offensive. The good news then was that the backlash actually led to a report with strong acknowledgments of CCSU’s obligation to respect the First Amendment.

But these pyrrhic victories for a free press led to new battles. The chair of CSU’s Board of Student Communications—himself, ironically, an expert in censorship of the press during wartime—sought to impose new editorial oversight by CSU. Fortunately, this effort failed and the interim chair resigned.

The opponents of the Recorder have been more sinister. One day, someone depleted the Recorder’s entire account, and only intervention restored its funds. Meanwhile, others were trying (and may still be trying) to get the paper evicted from its offices. CCSU’s president even endured a no-confidence vote of the faculty—which failed—because of choices like refusing to punish the paper for its controversial speech.

The CCSU story is not over, but the latest good news is that CCSU’s outgoing editor-in-chief has voluntarily led the paper to adopt its own code of ethics. That is the way social pressure is supposed to work: if you do something legal but outrageous and others explain their concerns, you then—if you choose—can change your ways. Choosing not to advertise in a publication you don’t like is one of many things you can do without calling on the university’s power to act against the First Amendment.

Other papers have suffered, too. At Grambling State University this fall, the university—on the president’s orders—removed photos about a controversial event from The Gramblinite’s web site. Back in January, the provost had even tried to shut the paper down, and the paper then barely escaped a policy of prior review.

Quinnipiac University, for its part, has defended its restrictive policy of preventing the Quinnipiac Chronicle from publishing any new stories or updates on its web site until a new print issue appears. Moreover, Quinnipiac has threatened the student editor with discipline or even termination for publicly challenging the policy—since, the university’s spokesperson says, the editor is an employee of the school and therefore is expected to show support for the university’s policies—and, it seems, is expected not to criticize such policies in public.

Under such conditions, Grambling State and Quinnipiac do not have anything like a free press, and the public should know that all news coming out of their student newspapers has been written under the shadow of university control.

These sad tales from 2007 emphasize the value, if not the necessity, of having a truly independent newspaper on campus. Otherwise, we cannot ensure that the college has a free press. Colleges and universities ought to value a free press enough to let student newspapers make their own mistakes and learn from them. This is a good lesson in citizenship. The alternative teachingis that the state and university officials control the news, which does not well befit the ideals of our democratic republic.

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