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Vindicating Freedom of the Press from Alaska to Wisconsin

As we celebrate Free Press Week here at FIRE, I find myself thinking back on cases in which FIRE has intervened on behalf of student journalists and protected the freedom of the press that the First Amendment guarantees. I don’t have to look very far back, either. As our work over the past year (including as recently as this month) demonstrates, FIRE is committed to defending student newspapers and media outlets against censorship and ensuring that free press rights can be properly exercised on college and university campuses.

For proof of this, one need look no further than our recent victory at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF).

In that case, we secured the First Amendment rights of the student newspaper The Sun Star, which had been subjected to sexual harassment investigations for nearly a year after a UAF professor, Jensine Anahita, filed complaints over two articles the paper had published in April 2013. The first was a satirical article in The Sun Star’s annual April Fool’s Day issue describing the university’s plan to construct a vagina-shaped building on campus. The second article in question was an investigative report about hateful messages posted on an anonymous but publicly available “UAF Confessions” Facebook page, which included screenshots of some messages on the page.

Despite the clearly protected nature of both articles, the university subjected The Sun Star to an investigation that lasted until September, following complaints filed by Anahita alleging that the articles created a sexually hostile environment on campus. When UAF’s investigation rejected Anahita’s assertions and concluded that the two articles did not constitute sexual harassment, the professor appealed, leading the university to bring in an outside attorney to review its investigation and findings. This review was still pending as of January 15, 2014, when FIRE wrote a letter to UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers. Our letter pointed that by subjecting the student paper to a months-long series of investigations on the basis of clearly protected speech, the university was almost certainly creating a harmful chilling effect on campus discourse.

A little more than two weeks later, on February 4, FIRE received the result we were hoping for: Chancellor Rogers informed us that the external investigation had fully exonerated The Sun Star and that he fully accepted the review’s conclusions. We were thrilled to secure this just outcome, as our press release at the time expressed:

“We hope this marks the end of The Sun Star’s long and frustrating quest to vindicate its First Amendment rights,” said Peter Bonilla, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program. “We commend UAF for refusing to accede to demands for censorship, and we hope UAF will continue to do so when the First Amendment rights of other UAF students and student organizations are at stake.”

Indeed. While we recognize that the entire ordeal likely had a chilling effect on student dialogue and discussion at UAF, we hope that moving forward the university has a renewed understanding of, and appreciation for, the First Amendment rights of its students.

FIRE’s advocacy had a similar impact at the University of Wisconsin - Madison (UWM). In June 2013, the Wisconsin State Legislature placed a measure on the proposed state budget that would have kicked the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ), an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, off of UWM’s campus. (The university had hosted WCIJ in two offices on campus, where WCIJ produced award-winning journalism and provided UW journalism students with paid internships.) The motion would have additionally prohibited any UW employees, including faculty, from “doing any work related to” the WCIJ “as part of their duties as a UW employee,” a ban so vague and broad that it would have prevented university faculty from even using WCIJ writings and materials as handouts for a class.

Despite the fact that professors and past WCIJ interns could testify to the valuable experience students gained from working with the WCIJ, the state legislature approved the budget proposal, including the problematic provision to which FIRE objected. In doing so, the state legislature ignored the concerns FIRE raised in a letter (PDF) sent to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and members of the legislature. Thus, the legislature was poised not only to restrict the academic freedom of UW faculty and the educational opportunities of UW students but also to curb the award-winning journalism of a valuable nonpartisan voice in the state.

Fortunately, things got better from there. Following an urgent second letter from FIRE to Governor Walker, the governor issued a line-item veto to remove the measure in question from the proposed state budget. This hard-earned victory vindicated UW professors’ academic freedom, students’ educational opportunities, and the WCIJ’s journalistic endeavors all at once. As such, it stands as one of FIRE’s most satisfying triumphs of 2013.

These cases, and many more that came before them, demonstrate the scope of FIRE’s commitment to consistently defend freedom of the press on university campuses!

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