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Santa Clara University says its request that student newspaper remove story was act of “compassion”

Censoring is caring? That’s a poor message for a university to send to students — especially one that claims to value free speech. But that’s the line Santa Clara University is sticking with, despite criticism from FIRE, alumni, and its own student newspaper.

The controversy over the act of so-called “compassion” started at Santa Clara in February, when its student newspaper, The Santa Clara, published a searing editorial titled “Censored But Not Silenced.” In it, the paper’s editorial board claimed that “for the first time in many years,” Santa Clara failed to honor the “longstanding, explicit understanding between the university administration and The Santa Clara regarding editorial control over the content in this publication.”

The editorial board’s concern arose after the paper was “instructed” by Vice Provost Jeanne Rosenberger to take down a Feb. 2 article that included a quote critical of School of Engineering Dean Godfrey Mungal by John Sobrato, an alumnus who had just donated $100 million to the university. When pressed for justifications, Rosenberger advised the paper’s editor-in-chief, Sophie Mattson, to speak with Santa Clara General Counsel John Ottoboni.

Ottoboni, who requested to speak off the record with Mattson about the decision, explained to The San Francisco Chronicle that the story’s “potential for harm outweighed the benefit” and that students “have to realize that compassion goes with this.”

The Santa Clara ultimately chose only to cut the portion of the article mentioning the comments about Mungal. The removed text can be read below:

Sobrato also expressed interest in having a new dean to match the new building.

“Frankly we have to have a new dean that’s more connected in the high­tech community. And I don’t want to throw stones at Godfrey (Mungal), but ... we need somebody that’s a modern, high­tech entrepreneur. I’d love to see some retired executive who would like to run a school. That’s what we need to find to make this project really sing.”

When asked for comment about Sobrato’s remarks, Mungal said in an email that the School of Engineering has used connections in Silicon Valley to raise the stature of the school in U.S. News and World Report’s ranking from from 21st to 12th. He also said that engineering students make up 18 percent of the student body, up from a previous 12 percent of students.

He did not directly address Sobrato’s comment about him.

In The Santa Clara’s editorial explaining their decision to accede to the administration, the staff wrote, “We found the request to be in violation of our commitment to journalistic ethics, and did so only to comply with our publisher’s request.”

FIRE agrees, and we sent a letter to the university on March 7 to voice our concerns about the university’s handling of the situation. In that letter, we asked the university to respect the independence of its student press and reassure students that it would no longer instruct The Santa Clara to remove articles.

While we also praised Santa Clara’s administration for overturning the Associated Student Government’s recent decision to deny recognition to a student chapter of Turning Point USA because of the group’s political stances — a request FIRE made to the university in a separate, Feb. 17 letter — we noted that the university cannot only keep its commitment to freedom of speech when the expression in question does not make administrators uncomfortable.

It’s clear that Santa Clara has not acknowledged our concerns about its treatment of the student press: In addition to ignoring our most recent letter, the university has since doubled down on the idea that its actions should be excused because they were made with “compassion” in mind.

In a comment made last week to the Student Press Law Center, Ottoboni once again conflated Santa Clara’s attempts to control its student newspaper’s reporting of criticism against a dean with an act of kindness:

“We do not view this as an act of censorship, but rather one of compassion,” Ottoboni wrote. “The University made a request of the newspaper to remove a small portion of a news article because it could possibly cause unwarranted harm to a reputation of a member of our academic community. Thus, it was compassion – not censorship – that was the driving force in our request.”

“It’s to protect others” is a common apology for censorship, but it’s a laughably poor one. In its efforts to protect a dean from the perceived harm of a printed criticism of him, Santa Clara has found itself in the center of a public controversy which has brought media attention to the university’s censorship instinct — and the article they wanted taken down in the first place.

Like other universities before it, Santa Clara has now learned what it means to experience the “Streisand Effect” — the term describing the way in which attempts to censor or hide information backfire — and the lesson that calling for a story’s removal is the best way to ensure it will be widely read.

If nothing else, Santa Clara’s failures should teach other university administrators that if they can’t choose not to pressure student newspapers to remove content for the right reasons, they should at least decide not to do so for the self-serving reasons — namely, the Streisand Effect.

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