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More Bad News for Student Press Freedom

Evidence has begun to roll in showing that the freedom of the student press is under assault as never before. It’s certainly bad enough that our own federal court system is attacking the free campus press through the Seventh Circuit’s en banc decision in Hosty v. Carter (now being appealed to the Supreme Court)—but hold on, it gets worse. In just the last few days, FIRE has become aware of not one, not two, but three different assaults on campus press freedom that have taken place since the beginning of the school year—and it’s only the end of September.

Our first stop on this road trip of repression is Morehead State University in Kentucky, where seven thousand copies of The Trailblazer, a student paper which apparently had the audacity to print a story about a sexual assault in an off-campus house (they print only 7,200 copies of the paper total), were stolen. According to the Student Press Law Center, a FIRE ally and excellent source of information on newspaper censorship, editors of the paper suspect members of “fraternities and sororities” of stealing the paper in response to the sexual assault story. SPLC’s article has more information, and the Trailblazer story is here. Police are said to be investigating, but the district attorney is said to be unsure whether stealing 7,000 copies of a free newspaper is a crime. Here’s a hint: ask the paper’s advertisers.

New York State’s Vassar College is our next stop. Inside Higher Ed reports that The Imperialist, published by Vassar’s Moderate, Independent, and Conservative Alliance, angered students through two items. The first was an article expressing the author’s dismay that, “minority and gay and lesbian students ‘are voluntarily confining themselves to ghettoes’ of cultural centers created for them.” The second was an editorial cartoon featuring a black woman and a white girl that, as the Imperialist’s editor described it, expressed the opinion that “when black students accuse a white student of being racist, that student is as helpless as a little girl.” The paper apologized, but offended students nevertheless demanded that the student government strip funding from the Imperialist. To its credit, the student government didn’t vote that way, but it did order the Moderate, Independent, and Conservative Alliance to hold an “open forum for students on campus later this month.” Does anyone think The Imperialist will print those views again without worrying that it will destroy the newspaper? Talk about a chilling effect.

Next is Massachusetts and Boston College, where Fox News reports that The Heights student newspaper is taking criticism for being racist because it called the arrest of three black resident directors for smoking marijuana a “drug bust” in one of its headlines. Papers should expect to be criticized for their reporting and for decisions that are seen as racist (although calling an event where people get busted for using drugs a “drug bust” seems pretty understandable)—and students have every right to do so. In this case, though, students apparently saw fit to burn some newspapers to make their point—therefore denying other students the chance to read the papers and decide for themselves.

Freedom of the press and freedom to publish “controversial” material is one of our most basic rights as Americans—and it is under assault at universities where freedom of discourse and inquiry should be paramount. I want to conclude with some words from our legal director, Greg Lukianoff, from his testimony to the U.S. Senate in 2003:

One chilling example of how poorly free speech is understood and how little it is respected in higher education today is the phenomenon of newspaper thefts. For over a decade in at least five dozen documented instances, students have stolen and destroyed tens of thousands of copies of student-run newspapers on colleges and universities across the country in an effort to silence viewpoints with which they disagree. In some cases these newspapers were thrown out, and—in at least a half dozen cases—they were burned. I hope I do not need to remind you of the fate of societies of the previous century when they began burning books…. With those in power teaching the current generation these kinds of lessons about free speech, how can we expect them to defend their own basic rights when they are threatened? It would truly be a terrible thing to have a whole generation of students so unfamiliar with their basic liberties that they would not even know if they lost them.

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