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Student newspaper honored for exposing university’s censorship of RAs

University of Northern Iowa campus Campanile

Last spring, the University of Northern Iowa’s student newspaper reported about the administration’s unconstitutional prior restraint of media interviews given by resident assistants. After FIRE’s Student Press Freedom Initiative wrote to UNI criticizing the policy, UNI clarified that RAs may speak to the media as private citizens without prior approval from the administration. 

The Northern Iowan’s story earned it the First Amendment Award at the Iowa College Media Association Awards on Feb. 2.

"It is an honor for the Northern Iowan to receive such a meaningful award,” said Caroline Christenson, co-author of the winning article. “As journalists it is our obligation to advocate for those who may not be able to speak for themselves, and uphold the rights specified in the First Amendment."

More than 60% of student newspapers experience administrative censorship every year.

On March 3, 2022,  The Northern Iowan published a story about the personal experiences of RAs at UNI. Reporters interviewed 15 current and former RAs and sent an anonymous Google survey to more than 50 RAs asking questions about their experiences on the job. A UNI official told both The Northern Iowan and RAs that the UNI administration must pre-approve media responses. 

After learning of this unconstitutional policy, FIRE’s then-newly launched Student Press Freedom Initiative jumped on the case.

On March 17, 2022, SPFI wrote UNI, explaining that RAs can speak to the press in their personal capacity without prior approval or other restriction. As SPFI explained, the university can regulate the expression of RAs only when they speak on behalf of UNI housing. But RAs weren’t speaking on behalf of the university in this case, so the policy constituted an illegal prior restraint. To quote FIRE’s letter, the university “may not regulate students’ ability to speak with the media about their personal experiences as RAs or as students living in campus housing.” 

UNI responded in less than a week, affirming that the UNI community enjoys full First Amendment rights and that RAs can make media appearances without university interference. A week after that, the university told RAs they “may speak with the media (including on-campus newspapers) in their capacity as a private citizen without seeking prior approval.”

Thanks to The Northern Iowan’s reporting and SPFI stepping in, RAs had their First Amendment rights affirmed. More than 60% of student newspapers experience administrative censorship every year. But student journalists don’t have to fight censorship alone. 

SPFI exists to challenge university censorship and inform student journalists on media law. If your student paper is facing censorship, you can call SPFI at ​​717-734-SPFI (7734).

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 faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). 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).

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