Widespread attempts by university administrators to silence student journalists pose a grave threat to those journalists, their publications, and the campus community at large, according to a troubling report released today by the American Association of University Professors, the College Media Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and the Student Press Law Center. The groups urge colleges and universities to combat these threats by committing to a free press on campus and embracing “higher education’s traditional commitment to free and independent journalistic voices.”
The nine-page report details both the scope and nature of the threats student journalists and their advisers face, arguing that publicly reported cases—including recent high-profile ones—appear to “just be the tip of a much larger iceberg.”
“It has become disturbingly routine for student journalists and their advisers to experience overt hostility that threatens their ability to inform the campus community,” the report concludes. That hostility includes threats against advisers to conduct prior review of news stories and otherwise “control content,” or face termination. Defunding efforts and other financially-based censorship of student publications, as well as denial of student journalists’ access to critical information, are also rampant, the report says.
The report also underscores the important, multi-faceted role student journalism plays in the civic health of college communities. Because financial shortfalls have gutted professional newsrooms, “college and university journalists are today asked to bear more responsibility than ever before.”
But that role as campus watchdog has made these reporters the target of some college administrators who may have secrets to hide. “Obstruction and harassment of campus media frequently signify deeper institutional mismanagement that administrators may seek to downplay or conceal,” the report states. One particularly jarring example is included:
[T]he administration of California’s Southwest College mounted a campaign of intimidation and bullying of student journalists—including freezing the newspaper’s printing budget, cutting the adviser’s salary, and even threatening staff members with arrest—as part of an effort to conceal high-level wrongdoing. The administrator responsible for the harassment campaign, Raj Chopra, was forced out of office soon afterward as part of a wide-ranging “pay-to-play” corruption scandal encompassing members of the college’s board of trustees and contractors. The scandal resulted in criminal charges against eighteen individuals, including Chopra, who ended up accepting a guilty plea and serving three years’ probation.
(FIRE pushed back against several of Chopra’s other speech-chilling activities in the run-up to his abrupt resignation from Southwestern College in 2010.)
Courts may not provide a ready remedy, either. Legal precedent governing the rights of student newspapers is “unsettlingly disparate,” leaving student journalists and their advisers in “a gray zone of legal uncertainty,” the groups argue.
But while the facts presented are grim, the report recommends three safeguards colleges and universities can commit to providing their student journalists to secure editorial freedom. They include ensuring full editorial control for student publications, that advisors and editors will not face retaliation for editorial policy or content, and that any institutionally published and financed publications clearly state “that the opinions there expressed are not necessarily those of the college, university, or student body.”
“Ultimately,” the report concludes, “ensuring a campus environment conducive to substantive journalistic coverage requires a significant cultural readjustment that begins with those at the topmost levels of higher education.”