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Removal of journalists from CUNY campuses shows evolving anti-media bias

By December 22, 2017

Three journalists were removed from two City University of New York (CUNY) campuses this fall, part of a troubling pattern of hostility toward members of the media on university campuses.

On August 12, freelance photographer Jeff Bachner was handcuffed and detained in the security office of Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn. On August 16, freelancer J.B. Nicholas was handcuffed and issued a summons at Bronx Community College while interviewing students about Confederate busts on campus. In October, freelancer Max Zahn was escorted off the BCC campus on multiple days when trying to interview students about the same topic.

While Bachner and Zahn were never charged, and the summons against Nicholas was eventually dropped, all three events had the effect of preventing the reporters from covering the news stories they intended to relay to the public. What makes the interference especially notable is that campus police appear to have sincerely believed they were enforcing the law, even though the right to ask questions on a public campus is clearly established under the First Amendment. Anyone has the right to enter an outdoor space held open to the public — particularly one owned by the government — and ask questions or take pictures.

While you would be forgiven for thinking the CUNY system has an especially serious censorship problem, it’s worth noting that the system has 20 undergraduate campuses and over 275,000 students; if it has more censorship than most institutions, it’s also many times the size of most institutions.  Moreover, it’s not the only institution that seems to be having trouble understanding the role of journalists.

In his piece for the Columbia Journalism Review, Zahn recounts incidents at the University of Colorado Boulder and New Hampshire’s Keene State College. In the former incident, four journalists were explicitly “banned” from a public building; in the latter, coaches feared losing their jobs if they spoke candidly to reporters.

Sadly, FIRE can add to that list, because student journalists have fared no better. For example, last year, Brandeis University student journalists faced threats of outside legal action and internal discipline for reporting on a “Take Back The Night” campus event. In April, student journalists at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas had their newspapers confiscated by the administration. In September, the Student Government Association at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania attempted to prevent its student newspaper from publishing the SGA’s budget.

That these incidents were ultimately resolved, just as the three CUNY incidents were, does not mean they had no effect. Subjecting journalists to this kind of treatment creates a chilling effect that reduces the likelihood of a story being covered and, accordingly, reduces the information available to the public.

But when it comes to student media, this hostility is not new. We saw it in 2015 when Melissa Click called for “muscle” to remove student journalists from a protest on Mizzou’s campus. In 2013, administrators at the University of Alaska Fairbanks began an investigation of the student paper that would drag on for more than a year, in part because the paper ran a story about a “confessional” Facebook group for students. In 2012, a student was suspended from SUNY Oswego and charged with “disruptive behavior” for doing email interviews about a coach where the interview questions said that “what you say… does not have to be positive.”

The examples go back to 2002, when a student at American University in Washington, D.C. was punished for videotaping a speech by Tipper Gore. In fact, they go back as far as 1969, when a Mizzou student was expelled because administrators didn’t like her choice of cartoon or headline.

If anything, the most surprising thing about this fall’s incidents was that they involved non-student journalists. Zahn’s CJR piece speculates the problem could be the general climate of hostility toward media today:

Regardless of colleges limiting press access, students may not want to speak with media anyway. A poll conducted by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that 59 percent of students have little or no trust in the press to report the news accurately and fairly. “Any student who doesn’t want to be interviewed can walk away,” said George Freeman, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center.

I think the explanation is simpler: colleges have decided they can get away with treating professional journalists as badly as they treat student journalists, so they’re going to do that. I hope the professional media decides to hold these colleges accountable and prove them wrong.