Free PRESSED: How Administrative Censorship is Squeezing Student Newsrooms | The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

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Free PRESSED: How Administrative Censorship is Squeezing Student Newsrooms

Student Press Censorship

Executive Summary

In the fall of 2020, Jared Nally, editor of The Indian Leader—the oldest Native American student newspaper in the country—received a letter from the president of his college, Haskell Indian Nations University. The letter, styled as a “Directive,” peppered Jared with a litany of commands—beginning with a boldface “You will NOT,” followed by a series of forbidden journalistic practices, such as recording interviews or asking questions of public officials.

It took months of advocacy and a lawsuit by Jared and FIRE for Haskell to let up on this unconstitutional “directive,” and, as of this writing, FIRE is still advocating for full justice for Jared and for The Indian Leader. But—beyond Jared, The Leader, and Haskell—this case raises questions about whether this kind of experience is common among college and university newspaper editors, or if Jared’s case was an unfortunate anomaly.

We know from news reports—and from calls to FIRE and other advocacy organizations—that censorship of student media does, unfortunately, happen. But what neither news reports nor the calls the requests for help we receive tell us is the prevalence of this problem. This series of surveys contained in this report was designed to help illuminate that question.

The surveys in this series—conducted first during the 2016–17 academic year, and again during the 2020–21 academic year—examine the prevalence of administrative censorship practices experienced by newspaper editors at public, bachelor’s degree-granting institutions of higher education in the United States. Both surveys were sent to the entire known population of editors at flagship newspapers across the country, and the results give us a snapshot of how they experience censorship.

The results? At least 60 percent of editors who took the survey in both academic years reported experiencing at least one instance of administrative censorship in the year preceding the survey—60% in the 2016–17 academic year, and 63.8% in the 2020–21 academic year.

For the 2020–21 academic year, this number breaks down to 60.9% of all respondents reporting experiencing administrative requests not to publish specific content or report on an issue, 14.5% reporting a threat of job loss because of newspaper content, 14% reporting experiencing a threat to funding because of content, and 10% reporting a threat of discipline because of content.

Others faced what is arguably not censorship, technically, but what advocates know is often a vehicle to implicitly encourage self-censorship: meetings with administrators either before or after publication. In 2020–21, 60.3% of editors reported being asked to discuss a story with an administrator before publication (not including instances when administrators met with editors in response to interview requests), and 69.1% reported being asked to have such conversations after publication.

The news isn’t all bad, though: While censorship appears to be a widespread problem endemic to the college journalism community, it also appears to affect individual publications infrequently. Specifically, most editors who reported experiencing censorship experienced it only rarely, such that a majority of editors experience censorship annually, but may only experience it 1-2 times per year. In this way, college newspaper censorship is like the flu: Nearly everyone gets it once or twice a year, but it usually isn’t chronic or lethal. Nonetheless, the prevalence of censorship across the country demands an antidote. We must explore better advocacy and develop new resources to prevent censorship—however infrequent—from happening to so much of the population year after year.

Introduction

FIRE fields calls frequently from student journalists across the country, concerned about threats of censorship against them and their publications. As local news deserts increasingly propagate, the student publications to which these collegiate journalists contribute serve not only their campuses, but also often the community at large.

In 2015, The Atlantic quoted Frank LoMonte, then executive director of the Student Press Law Center: “What we’re seeing is the convergence of two worrisome trends: Colleges are more obsessed with ‘protecting the brand’ than they’ve ever been before, and journalism as an industry is weaker and less able to defend itself than ever before.”[1] The result? An epidemic of student media censorship at colleges and universities across the country.

This epidemic—or, perhaps endemic—problem is not well documented. While academic literature has made some strides toward documenting the prevalence of censorship of student publications at both the high school and college level, there are few widespread studies that capture the breadth of the problem.

For example, in an informal 2016 survey of media advisers affiliated with the College Media Association, an organization that provides resources to collegiate journalists and their advisers,[2] found that “over a three-year period more than twenty media advisers who had not previously shared their stories reported suffering some degree of administrative pressure to control, edit, or censor student journalistic content.”[3]

Similarly, a 2019 thesis showed that 80.77% of surveyed student journalists at public, four-year institutions had at least “a little” concern about censorship happening at their publication.[4] My own 2018 thesis, out of which this report and current survey has grown, showed that about 60% of student newspapers at public, four-year institutions had faced at least one instance of administrative censorship in the year prior to the survey.[5]

The First Amendment and the Student Journalist

The right of student journalists to First Amendment protections has long been settled. When the University of Missouri expelled a graduate student who disseminated an independent student newspaper that contained foul language and a cartoon depicting a policeman raping the Statute of Liberty and Goddess of Justice, the U.S. Supreme Court held the expulsion violated the student’s First Amendment rights, remarking that “the mere dissemination of ideas—no matter how offensive to good taste—on a state university campus may not be shut off in the name alone of ‘conventions of decency.’”[6]

Countless lower courts have similarly found that student journalists generally may not be disciplined for the content of their publications.[7] However, the Supreme Court’s narrowing of First Amendment protections for K-12 student journalists in 1988 in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier[8]—and Hazelwood’s subsequent citation in some higher education cases, and rejection in both the secondary and post-secondary education contexts in others—has created confusion regarding the exact bounds of the First Amendment’s protection of journalists at colleges and universities. This confusion especially applies to those college and university publications created in a classroom or laboratory setting.

Hazelwood was most notably applied to college press in Hosty v. Carter, a 2005 case in which the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled that a college may regulate the content of some college-sponsored student publications, such as when they are produced in a classroom setting, if the college has a legitimate pedagogical purpose for doing so.[9]

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, however, has held Hazelwood does not apply to college media, explaining that “Hazelwood . . ., in which the [Supreme] Court held that a high school newspaper whose production was part of educational curriculum was not a public forum, is not applicable to college newspapers.”[10]

Notably, these precedents do not affect the First Amendment rights of student journalists at editorially independent, non-laboratory publications. Hazelwood applies only to certain school-sponsored student publications, and then only if the content regulation relates to an educational purpose. Specifically, Hazelwood outlined three factors to consider when determining whether student expression is subject to regulation for pedagogical purposes: (1) whether the expression is “school-sponsored”; (2) whether the expression is curricular; and (3) whether the expression “bears the imprimatur of the school.”[11] Hazelwood additionally examined whether the forum in which the expression occurred—that is, the student publication—had been designated “by policy or by practice” as a forum for student expression.[12] While, under these factors, Hazelwood certainly does not apply to non-laboratory publications, it is worth noting the line between editorially-independent and laboratory publications can often be blurry.

Some states have responded to Hazelwood and its progeny by passing legislation that make clear student publications’ editorial decisions must be free from administrative oversight. The Student Press Law Center maintains a list of states with such statutory protections, and as of this writing, 15 states maintain these laws.[13]

Method, Participant Selection, and Demographics

In order to better understand the rate at which censorship affects student media at colleges and universities across the United States, FIRE undertook a nationwide survey of editors of flagship newspapers at public, four-year institutions.

This survey sought to answer the following questions:

  1. How often do college newspaper editors experience administrative censorship?
  2. How often do college newspaper editors comply with administrative censorship?
  3. What topics, if published, do editors perceive will receive the disapproval of administrators, advisers, and advisory boards?
  4. Do experiences with administrative censorship and compliance therewith vary based on editors’ personal characteristics, such as gender or ethnicity?
  5. Have college newspaper editors’ experiences with administrative censorship and compliance therewith changed since the 2016¬–17 academic year, when this survey was last completed?

To answer these questions, FIRE sent a survey to newspaper editors at 477 newspapers at public, bachelor’s degree-granting institutions in the United States. The 477 newspaper editors represented the entire known population.

The survey and participant selection rested upon my 2018 thesis, which asked broadly the same questions and had similar goals to this research. For my thesis, I determined the population by creating a database using the National Center for Education Statistics database of institutions of higher education; a formerly-incomplete database, developed by FIRE, of college newspapers; college newspaper websites; other web-based research; and phone calls to colleges. Contact information (addresses and email addresses) for each editor in the known population came from publicly available information on college and university websites, newspaper websites, and phone calls to institutions. Notably, for the first survey in this series sent during the 2016–17 academic year, the known population included 532 student newspapers. An update to the database undertaken during the summer of 2020 revealed that 55 formerly active newspapers appeared to no longer be publishing, explaining the reduction in population from 532 to 477.

Recruitment was based upon Dillman’s method of mixed medium recruitment:[14] We made initial contact with respondents via a mailed letter with a notebook for their use enclosed. Roughly four days after this initial contact, we emailed potential respondents more information about the study, including consent information and a link to the survey instrument. We then sent follow-up emails roughly one week and two weeks after the initial email.

The survey yielded 69 responses: a response rate of 14.5%. The sample reflected expected gender diversity, with 68.1% female, 24.6% male, and 5.8% genderqueer/gender non-conforming respondents (1.4% chose not to respond). Regarding ethnicity, 76.8% of respondents identified as Caucasian, 21.8% identified as another ethnicity, and 1.4% chose not to respond (see Table 1).

Table 1

Ethnicity of respondents

Ethnicity %
Asian 5.8
Caucasian 76.8
Hispanic or Latino/a 10.1
Multiracial or Biracial 4.3
Native American or Alaskan Native 1.4

Results

Prevalence of Administrative Censorship Practices

As its first goal, this survey sought to determine the prevalence of editors’ experiences with administrative censorship. To examine the overall prevalence of administrative censorship, an index was created by combining responses to questions regarding administrative requests not to publish a story or report on an issue, subtle or overt threats of discipline of student staff members, threats of cuts to student staff members’ scholarships, threats to publication funding, threats against advisers’ jobs, and threats against student staff members’ jobs.

Of the respondents, 63.8% reported experiencing at least one instance of one or more of the administrative censorship practices listed above, with 60.9% reporting having been asked by an administrator not to publish a specific content item or report on an issue (see Table 2).

Table 2

Prevalence of editor experiences with administrative censorship index practices

Statement: In the last year...
Combined administrative censorship index
M
SD
% reporting some occurrence
63.8
 
Statement: In the last year...
Administration has asked a staff member not to publish a story or report on an issue*
M
1.87
SD
0.821
% reporting some occurrence
60.9
 
Statement: In the last year...
A student staff member has faced overt threat or strong pressure of job loss due to a story or other content**
M
0.203
SD
0.531
% reporting some occurrence
14.5
 
Statement: In the last year...
The publication has faced overt threat or strong pressure of funding cuts because of a story or other content**
M
0.14
SD
0.35
% reporting some occurrence
14
 
Statement: In the last year...
A student staff member has faced an overt threat or strong pressure of disciplinary action because of a story**
M
0.116
SD
0.365
% reporting some occurrence
10.1
 
Statement: In the last year...
The publication adviser has faced an overt threat or strong pressure of job loss due to a story or other content**
M
0.079
SD
0.326
% reporting some occurrence
6.3
 
Statement: In the last year...
A student staff member has faced an overt threat or strong pressure of scholarship cuts due to a story or other content**
M
0.029
SD
0.169
% reporting some occurrence
2.9
 
*1 = never and 5 = very often
** 0 = no threat or pressure, 1 = strong pressure, 2 = overt threat

Editors reported very few instances of overt or strongly pressured threats against their publications or members of their publication staffs. The most commonly experienced threat was that of student staff member job loss, which 14.5% reported experiencing either overtly or subtly (see Table 2). As a close second, 14% of those respondents from newspapers that are not entirely self-funded reported experiencing either overt or subtle threats of funding cuts (see Table 2).

Other potential administrative censorship practices that were not included in the administrative censorship index—because they do not always represent clear-cut examples of censorship in the same way that measures included in the index do, but can lead to a power differential that creates a culture of censorship—include editors being asked by administrators to publish a specific content item, being called to a meeting with administrators to discuss a story before publication, and being called to a meeting to discuss a story after publication. Overall, 60.9% of editors reported being asked by administrators to publish a specific content item, 60.3% reported being called to an administrative meeting to discuss content before publication, and 69.1% reported being called to an administrative meeting to discuss content after publication (see Table 3).

Regarding relationships with individuals other than administrators, in addition to the questions above, the survey asked about the extent to which advisory boards and advisers exert influence over content. Of those editors who reported having an advisory board (n = 27), 22.2% reported being asked by their advisory board not to publish a story or report on an issue. Further, of those editors who reported having an adviser (n=62), 35.5% reported having been asked by their adviser not to publish a story or report on an issue. 72.6% of those with advisers also reported that their adviser has read the content of their newspaper before publication, with 22.6% reporting that occurs “very often” (see Table 3).

Table 3

Prevalence of editor experiences with censoring practices

Statement: In the last year...
Administration has asked a staff member not to publish a story or report on an issue
M
1.87
SD
0.821
% reporting some occurrence (>1 on scale)
60.9
 
Statement: In the last year...
Administration has asked the publication to publish a specific content item
M
1.1
SD
1.095
% reporting some occurrence (>1 on scale)
60.3
 
Statement: In the last year...
Publication adviser has asked a staff member not to publish a story or report on an issue
M
1.5
SD
0.763
% reporting some occurrence (>1 on scale)
35.5
 
Statement: In the last year...
Advisory board has asked a staff member not to publish a story or report on an issue
M
1.37
SD
0.792
% reporting some occurrence (>1 on scale)
22.2
 
Statement: In the last year...
Publication adviser has read the newspaper content before publication
M
2.823
SD
1.531
% reporting some occurrence (>1 on scale)
72.6
 
Statement: In the last year...
Administration has contacted a staff member to discuss a story before publication (not including responses to interview requests)
M
2.015
SD
1.058
% reporting some occurrence (>1 on scale)
60.3
 
Statement: In the last year...
Administration has contacted a staff member to discuss a story after publication
M
2.235
SD
1.038
% reporting some occurrence (>1 on scale)
69.1
 
1 = never and 5 = very often

It is important to note these adviser and advisory board practices—specifically, asking that a content item not be published, that an issue not be covered, or that content be reviewed prior to publication—may not always represent censorship. For example, an editor may ask an adviser to read over the content of the newspaper before publication, to scan for grammatical errors or general advice. Similarly, advisers and advisory boards may suggest that a newspaper not cover a topic or not publish a story in order to help the publication avoid liability, because the piece does not follow journalistic best practices, or for other, legitimate reasons. So long as the student staff of an editorially independent publication invite these suggestions, and advisers and advisory boards do not overstep their advisory capacity, they do not constitute censorship. However, when an adviser or advisory board treads upon the editorial independence of student editors by demanding that certain content not be published, this constitutes censorship.

Prevalence of Compliance with Administrative Censorship Practices

This survey also sought to examine the prevalence of compliance with administrative censorship practices. Of those who reported at least one administrative request not to publish stories or not to report on issues (n = 42), 26.2% reported that they complied at least some of the time (M = 1.31, SD = .562) (see Table 4). Of those who reported at least one administrative request to publish specific items (n = 41), 56.1% reported that they complied at least some of the time (M = 1.95, SD = 1.071).

Table 4

Prevalence of compliance with administrative censorship practices from editor perspective

Statement: How often, in the last year...
Publication has complied with administrative request not to publish a story or report on an issue
M
1.31
SD
.563
% reporting some occurrence (>1 on scale)
26.2
 
Statement: How often, in the last year...
Publication has complied with administrative request to publish a specific content item
M
1.95
SD
1.071
% reporting some occurrence (>1 on scale)
56.1
 
1 = never and 5 = very often

Topics for which Editors Perceive Disapproval

This survey also sought to identify the topics that editors perceived would earn disapproval from administrators, their advisers, and advisory boards, if the editors chose to report on them. Respondents were asked to identify whether they felt that various actors would disapprove of their newspaper covering a series of topics that tend to foster widely varying views on campuses and in the larger community.

Overall, 40.6% of respondents reported perceiving that their administration would disapprove of their publication covering of administrative decisions. A similar 40.6% reported perceiving that their administration would disapprove of them covering college personnel issues, while 31.9% reported perceiving that their administration would disapprove of their publication covering college finances (see Table 5).

Table 5

Topics editors believe administrators disapprove of their publications covering

Topic % reporting perceived disapproval
N = 69
Administrative Decisions 40.6
College Personnel Issues 40.6
College Finances 31.9
Title IX and Sexual Assault 23.2
Campus Crime 21.7
Drugs and Alcohol 17.4
COVID-19 14.5
Race and Racial Inequality 14.5
Greek Life 14.5
Sex, Sexual Health, and Abortion 11.6
Student Government 7.2
Israeli/Palestinian Conflict 5.8
International News 2.9
Public Health 2.9
Gender 2.9
Campus Athletics 1.4
Climate Change 1.4
Immigration 1.4
Community News and Events 1.4
Campus Events 0

A significant minority of editor-respondents also reported perceiving that their administration would disapprove of their newspaper covering Title IX and sexual assault (23.2%), campus crime (21.7%), and drugs and alcohol (17.4%). Coverage of COVID-19, the topic du jour in the 2020–21 academic year, was perceived to be disapproved of by administrators by 14.5% of editors.

When it comes to advisory boards, editors who work for publications with advisory boards (n = 28) reported perceiving very little potential disapproval from their advisory boards. While 7.14% reported perceiving disapproval of covering COVID-19 and national and/or international news, this represents only two editors reporting each of these.

Table 6

Topics which, if covered, editors believe would garner disapproval by advisory boards

Topic % reporting perceived disapproval
N = 28
COVID-19 7.14
National and/or International news 7.14
Climate Change 3.57
Community News and Events 3.57
Drugs and Alcohol 3.57
Gender 3.57
Greek Life 3.57
Immigration 3.57
Israeli/Palestinian Conflict 3.57
Public Health 3.57
Race and Racial Inequality 3.57
Sex, Sexual Health, and Abortion 3.57
Student Government 3.57
Administrative Decisions 0
Campus Athletics 0
Campus Crime 0
Campus Events 0
College Finances 0
College Personnel Issues 0
Title IX and Sexual Assault 0

Similarly, very few editors reported perceived adviser disapproval of particular topics. The most commonly reported topic that editors perceived their advisers would disapprove of them covering was “Sex, Sexual Health, and Abortion,” of which only four editors reported perceiving adviser disapproval.

Table 7

Topics which, if covered, editors believe would garner disapproval by advisers

Topic % reporting perceived disapproval
N = 63
Sex, Sexual Health, and Abortion 6.35
National and/or International News 4.76
Administrative Decisions 3.17
Drugs and Alcohol 3.17
Immigration 3.17
Race and Racial Inequality 3.17
Climate Change 1.59
Community News and Events 1.59
Campus Crime 1.59
Gender 1.59
Greek Life 1.59
Israeli/Palestinian Conflict 1.59
College Personnel Issues 1.59
Public Health 1.59
COVID-19 0
Campus Events 0
Campus Athletics 0
College Finances 0
Student Government 0
Title IX and Sexual Assault 0

Whether Censorship or Compliance Varies by Editor or Publication Characteristics

This survey also sought to understand whether personal characteristics of editors or organizational characteristics of their publications relates to the prevalence of censorship and/or prevalence of compliance with administrative censorship.

Editor’s Gender: Two-tailed independent samples t-tests were used to evaluate whether male editors (n = 17) differed from female editors (n = 47) in their frequency of perceiving various censorship practices and compliance therewith. Findings between the two groups showed statistically significant differences regarding frequency of administrative requests not to publish content items or report on issues, t(62) = -2.064, p = .043 (see Table 8). No other significant or near significant differences emerged between males and females regarding censorship practices or compliance with those practices. In other words, female editors are more likely than male editors to experience requests from administrators not to publish specific content items or not report on specific issues, but gender does not appear to affect the prevalence of other censorship practices.

Editor’s Ethnicity: Two-tailed independent samples t-tests were used to evaluate whether Caucasian editors (n = 53) differed from non-white editors (n = 16) in their frequency of perceiving of various censorship practices and compliance with those practices. No significant differences emerged between these groups.

Presence of Adviser: Two-tailed independent samples t-tests were used to determine whether the frequency of editors’ experiences of administrative censorship practices or compliance with those practices differed between newspapers with an adviser (n = 63) and those without an adviser (n = 5). No significant differences emerged between these groups.

Presence of Advisory Board: Two-tailed independent samples t-tests were used to determine whether the frequency of editors’ experiences of administrative censorship practices or compliance with those practices differed between newspapers with an advisory board(n = 28) and those without an advisory board (n = 34). No significant differences emerged between these groups.

Print or Online-Only Publication: Two-tailed independent samples t-tests were used to determine whether the frequency of editors’ experiences of administrative censorship practices or compliance with those practices differed between newspapers that publish in print (n = 58) and those that publish only online (n = 10). A significant difference emerged in the frequency of administrative requests not to publish an item or report on an issue, t(66) = 2.272, p = .026. In other words, editors at newspapers that publish solely online report experiencing administrative requests not to publish significantly more than editors at newspapers that also publish a print edition. Additionally, a significant difference emerged related to adviser prior review, t(59) = -2.076, p = .042. This demonstrates that newspapers that publish in print report experiencing adviser prior review significantly more often than do those at newspapers that publish only online. Further, a significant difference emerged related to compliance with administrative requests not to publish specific items or report on issues, t(7.922) = 2.321, p = .025. This demonstrates that editors at online-only publications reported complying with administrative requests not to publish more often than did editors at newspapers that publish in print. However, Levene’s test for equality of variances was statistically significant for this variable, so results should be interpreted with caution.

Comparison: 2016–17 Academic Year vs. 2020–21 Academic Year

The prevalence of administrative censorship practices included on the index—administrative requests not to publish specific content items or report on certain issues, subtle or overt threats of discipline of student staff members, threats of cuts to student staff members’ scholarships, threats to publication funding, threats against advisers’ jobs, and threats against student staff members’ jobs—demonstrates little change since the 2016–17 academic year (see Table 8). In the 2016–17 academic year, 60% of respondents reported at least some instance of one or more administrative censorship practices included on the index, and 51.6% reported having been asked by an administrator not to publish a story or other content item. In the 2020–21 academic year, 63.8% of editors reported at least some instance of one or more administrative censorship index practice, and 60.9% reported having been asked not to publish an item or report on an issue.

More optimistically, the prevalence of overt or subtle threats of funding cuts dropped since 2016–17, when 22.8% of respondents from newspapers that were not entirely self-funded reported experiencing either overt or subtle threats to the newspaper’s funding. In the 2020–21 academic year, on the other hand, only 14% reported similar threats.

However, the incidence of threats to staff members’ jobs increased. In 2016–17, only 7.4% of respondents reported experiencing subtle or overt threats to a student staff member’s job. In the latest iteration of this survey, 14.5% reported experiencing such threats.

While compliance with administrative requests not to publish content or report on an issue increased slightly, compliance with administrative requests to publish a specific content item decreased dramatically. During the 2016–17 academic year, 21.9% of those editor-respondents who reported at least some instance of administrative requests not to publish a specific item or report on an issue also reported compliance. In the 2020–21 academic year, that number went up slightly to 26.2%. However, of those respondents who reported at least some instance of administrative requests to publish specific items in the 2016–17 school year, 70.8% reported complying, while only 56.1% reported complying during the 2020–21 school year.

Table 8

Prevalence of editor experiences with administrative censorship index practices: 2020–21 vs. 2016–17

Statement: In the last year...
Combined administrative censorship index
% reporting some occurrence: 2020–21
63.8
% reporting some occurrence: 2016–17
60
 
Statement: In the last year...
Administration has asked a staff member not to publish a story or report on an issue
% reporting some occurrence: 2020–21
60.9
% reporting some occurrence: 2016–17
51.6
 
Statement: In the last year...
A student staff member has faced overt threat or strong pressure of job loss due to a story or other content
% reporting some occurrence: 2020–21
14.5
% reporting some occurrence: 2016–17
7.4
 
Statement: In the last year...
The publication has faced overt threat or strong pressure of funding cuts because of a story or other content
% reporting some occurrence: 2020–21
14
% reporting some occurrence: 2016–17
22.8
 
Statement: In the last year...
A student staff member has faced an overt threat or strong pressure of disciplinary action because of a story
% reporting some occurrence: 2020–21
10.1
% reporting some occurrence: 2016–17
6.3
 
Statement: In the last year...
The publication adviser has faced overt threat or strong pressure of job loss due to a story or other content
% reporting some occurrence: 2020–21
6.3
% reporting some occurrence: 2016–17
5.1
 
Statement: In the last year...
A student staff member has faced an overt threat or strong pressure of scholarship cuts due to a story or other content
% reporting some occurrence: 2020–21
2.9
% reporting some occurrence: 2016–17
0.5
 

Reports of perceived administrative disapproval of student newspapers covering administrative decisions and college personnel issues were similar in the 2016–17 academic year and the 2020–21 academic year (see Table 9). During the 2016–17 academic year, 39.9% and 36.4% reported perceived disapproval of these topics, respectively. In the 2020–21 academic year, both of these topics had 40.6% of editors reporting perceived administrative disapproval. Following this pattern, college finances, which was not examined during the 2016–17 academic year, came onto the 2020–21 survey as a popular target for perceived administrative disapproval, with 31.9% of respondents reporting this perception.

In the 2016–17 academic year, 33.8% of respondents reported perceiving administrative disapproval in their publications covering Title IX and sexual assault, and this number dropped slightly to 23.2% in the 2020–21 academic year.

Similarly, the number of editors reporting they perceive that administrators disapprove of their newspapers covering sex dropped between 2016–17 and 2020–21. In 2016–17, 31.3% of editors reported believing their administration disapproved of them covering sex. The question changed slightly in 2020–21 to include “sex, sexual health, and abortion,” and even with this expanded scope of topic, only 11.6% of respondents reported feeling that their administration disapproves of them covering these topics.

Table 9

Topics editors believe administrators disapprove of their publications covering: 2020–21 vs. 2016–17

Topic
Administrative Decisions
2020–21: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 69
40.6
2016–17: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 198
39.9
 
Topic
College Personnel Issues
2020–21: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 69
40.6
2016–17: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 198
36.4
 
Topic
College Finances
2020–21: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 69
31.9
2016–17: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 198
 
Topic
Title IX and Sexual Assault
2020–21: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 69
23.2
2016–17: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 198
33.8
 
Topic
Campus Crime
2020–21: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 69
21.7
2016–17: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 198
23.7
 
Topic
Drugs and Alcohol
2020–21: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 69
17.4
2016–17: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 198
27.8
 
Topic
COVID-19
2020–21: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 69
14.5
2016–17: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 198
 
Topic
Race and Racial Inequality
2020–21: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 69
14.5
2016–17: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 198
 
Topic
Greek Life
2020–21: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 69
14.5
2016–17: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 198
5.6
 
Topic
Sex, Sexual Health, and Abortion
2020–21: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 69
11.6
2016–17: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 198
31.3
 
Topic
Student Government
2020–21: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 69
7.2
2016–17: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 198
7.1
 
Topic
Israeli/Palestinian Conflict
2020–21: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 69
5.8
2016–17: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 198
 
Topic
International News
2020–21: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 69
2.9
2016–17: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 198
 
Topic
Public Health
2020–21: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 69
2.9
2016–17: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 198
 
Topic
Gender
2020–21: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 69
2.9
2016–17: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 198
 
Topic
Campus Athletics
2020–21: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 69
1.4
2016–17: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 198
6.1
 
Topic
Climate Change
2020–21: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 69
1.4
2016–17: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 198
 
Topic
Immigration
2020–21: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 69
1.4
2016–17: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 198
 
Topic
Community News and Events
2020–21: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 69
1.4
2016–17: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 198
1.5
 
Topic
Campus Events
2020–21: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 69
0
2016–17: % reporting perceived disapproval N = 198
2
 

Differences between editors’ experiences based on personal and organizational characteristics did not remain as constant as overall experiences with censorship.

For example, during the 2016–17 academic year, differences between white and nonwhite editors emerged related to compliance with advisory board requests not to publish an item or report on an issue, t(30.611) = -2.052, p = .049, wherein nonwhite editors were more likely to comply with advisory board requests not to publish. However, these results should be read with caution, as Levene’s test for equality of variances was statistically significant on this variable on the 2016–17 academic year survey. In contrast, no such differences emerged in the 2020–21 academic year.

Similarly, a significant negative relationship emerged between presence of an adviser and contact with administration both before, t(185) = -2.351, p < .05, and after publication, t(186) = -2.122, p < .05, in the 2016–17 academic year. Thus, editor-respondents with advisers experienced administrative contact before and after publication less frequently than editor-respondents without advisers. However, no such relationship emerged on the 2020–21 academic year survey.

As related to the presence of advisory boards, during the 2016–17 academic year, a significant negative relationship emerged regarding adviser prior review, t(155.861) = 3.959, p < .001, and compliance with administrative requests to publish, t(149) = 2.332, p = .021, as between those with (n = 76) and without (n = 98) advisory boards. However, Levene’s test for equality of variables was statistically significant on these variables, so results should be read with caution. Additionally, differences between those with and without advisory boards approached significance regarding administrative requests not to publish specific content or report on an issue, t(171) = 1.936, p = .055, with newspapers with advisory boards experiencing more requests than those without advisory boards. However, no differences emerged between those with and without advisory boards on the 2020–21 survey.

In contrast, on the 2016–17 survey, no significant or near-significant differences emerged between experiences with censorship practices and compliance therewith at newspapers that published in print versus those that published only online. However, in the 2020–21 academic year, editors at publications that publish only online reported significantly more experience with administrative requests not to publish specific items or report on certain topics, and similarly reported experiencing significantly more compliance with these requests. On the other hand, editors at newspapers that publish in print reported experiencing adviser prior review significantly more than those who publish only online on the 2020–21 survey. Again, neither of these differences emerged on the earlier survey.

Discussion

Prevalence of Censorship Practices

This survey aimed to identify the prevalence of various censorship practices, as other contemporary literature has generally focused instead on abstract ideas such as whether student editors maintain majority control of their publications.[15] These studies tend to show editors and advisers believe editors do maintain control of their publications.[16] However, in contrast to these findings, a 2013 study found editors tend to identify censorship as a problem for their publications.[17] These findings appear to contradict one another: On one hand, editors believe they have control, but on the other hand, they feel censorship poses a problem for them. To start to resolve this apparent conflict, this survey sought to provide a national, quantitative view of administrative censorship practices at college and university newspapers.

The results of both the 2020–21 academic year survey, as reported in this report, as well as the results of the 2016–17 survey, as reported in my thesis[18] offer hints as to why student editors may both feel they are in control while also feeling that censorship is a problem: Both surveys showed a majority of newspaper editors at public, bachelor’s degree-granting institutions experienced censorship practices at least once in the year preceding the surveys, but that editors do not experience individual instances of censorship very often.

Specifically, in 2016–17, 60% of respondents reported at least one instance of a censorship index practice,[19] and 63.8% reported the same in the 2020–21 academic year. However, the mean scores of editor experiences with various administrative censorship practices were generally low, in 2016–17 ranging—on a scale where 1 is never and 5 is very often in the last year—from a 1.76 for administrative requests not to publish a story or report on an issue (with 51.6% of editor-respondents identifying at least some occurrence) to 3.25 for administrative requests to publish a specific content item (with 86.2% of editor-respondents identifying at least some occurrence). Similarly, in 2020–21, the mean scores ranged from 1.10 for administrative requests to publish a specific content item (with 60.3% reporting at least some occurrence) to 2.235 for administrative requests to meet about a story after publication (with 72.6% reporting at least some occurrence). In the 2020–21 academic year, the mean score for administrative requests not to publish specific content or report on an issue was 1.87, with 60.9% reporting at least some occurrence.

What this tells us is that, while editors are experiencing at least one instance of administrative censorship each year, they are generally experiencing very few of these practices. Many editors may experience only one instance of censorship in a given year. This explains why editors both feel they have control of the content of their publications—because they are generally not experiencing censorship as a daily, ongoing issue—but still feel censorship is a problem—because they still experience it at least once annually. Censorship, we can conclude, is highly prevalent, but individually infrequent.

This also tracks historical research from the 1950s-90s, which indicated that student newspapers at colleges and universities dealt with prior review, prior restraint, urges to “tone down” content, and threats to advisers’ employment.[20] This suggests that while censorship of collegiate media has not gotten much worse in the past ~75 years, it also has not significantly improved.

The positive news is that very few editors reported experiencing overt or subtle censorship threats, such as threats against the newspaper’s funding, against a staff member’s job, against the adviser’s job, of scholarship loss, or of discipline. This low incidence of threats—both overt, and subtle—was reflected in both the 2016–17 and 2020–21 surveys.

However, both the 2016–17 academic year survey and the 2020–21 academic year survey showed that a majority of editors had been called to meet with administrators about the content of their publications, either before publication or after, at least once every year. While in 2016–17, only 26.7% of respondents reported being called to discuss content before publication, 60.3% reported the same in 2020–21. In contrast, in 2016–17, 81% of respondents reported being called to discuss content after publication, and in 2020–21, 69.1% reported experiencing the same.

While administrators requesting meetings with editors either before or after publication of content may not always be censorial in purpose—administrators may want to give additional perspective, offer comment, and so on—literature suggests that mere communication of disapproval from those in authority can become a subtle form of censorship, creating a willingness to self-censor in editors.[21] This is why this survey also looked at topics that editors believe administrators disapprove of them covering.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, editors believed in 2016–17 and continued to believe in 2020–21 that administrators disapprove of student newspapers covering administrative issues, such as administrative decisions (39.9% in 2016–17; 40.6% in 2020–21), college personnel issues (36.4% in 2016–17, 40.6% in 2020–21), and—a new addition to the most recent survey—college finances (31.9% in 2020–21).

Prevalence of Compliance with Censorship

Beyond looking solely at whether administrators attempt to censor student newspapers at public colleges and universities, this survey also sought to examine whether editors experience complying with these attempts.

Thankfully, the news is somewhat encouraging, though the trend is slightly toward more compliance. On the question of compliance with administrative requests not to publish an item or report on an issue, 26.2% of those that reported experiencing such a request on the 2020–21 survey (60.9% of total respondents so reported) reported complying with the request. While slightly more than a quarter of those experiencing this kind of censorship also complying is a greater number than we’d prefer to see, it also means nearly three-quarters of students who are asked not to publish something are resisting the request. This pattern also tracks results of 2016–17 survey, when 21.9% of those who reported at least some instance of administrative requests not to publish (51.6% of the respondents) reported at least some compliance. Also encouraging is that, even among those who reported some instance of compliance, frequency of compliance was low. The average score for 2020–21 was 1.31—somewhere between “never” and “rarely.”

Effect of Personal and Organizational Characteristics on Censorship and Compliance

Very few relationships emerged between various personal and organizational characteristics and experiences with administrative censorship and compliance.

Women were more likely to experience administrative requests not to publish specific content or report on issues than men on the 2020–21 survey, which differed from the 2016¬17 survey findings of no such relationship. However, this difference between the experiences of male and female editors does follow research that shows a similar relationship between censorship and gender of editors of high school newspapers.[22]

Ethnicity, presence of adviser, and presence of advisory board did not carry significant relationships with experience with administrative censorship or compliance.

Whether a newspaper published only online or also in print did make a difference for experience with censorship practices on the 2020–21 survey. Specifically, editors at newspapers that publish only online reported experiencing administrative requests not to publish significantly more than editors at newspapers that also publish in print. This may be because publications that publish only online publish in a faster-moving environment, and administrators more often feel a need to caution editors about going to press too early, or because administrators are more concerned with “airing their dirty laundry” online—where people can access the information, regardless of geographical limits—than they are in print.

A significant difference was also present between online-only and print publications related to prior review by advisers. Advisers were more likely to practice prior review of print publications. This may simply come down to the way in which print publications are produced versus online publications. Print publications usually require a “production night” during which editors—and, at times, the adviser—physically come together to lay out and ready the newspaper for printing. This may offer the adviser more ample opportunity to read the content before it publishes, versus an online publication, which may publish articles as they are submitted.

Summary and Call to Action

These survey results, unfortunately, do not provide a clear picture of what causes censorship. But they do provide a clear picture of the prevalence of censorship and compliance with such demands. Further, compared with the 2016–17 survey, the present survey results provide a hint at contemporary trends in censorship.

Specifically, both the 2016–17 and 2020–21 surveys indicate censorship is a widespread problem that affects a majority of editors about once a year. This is not a problem where we can point to “hot spots,” or places where censorship is particularly likely, but instead appears to be endemic to the entire collegiate journalism community. After the 2016–17 survey, I began explaining that censorship of college newspapers is like the flu: Nearly everyone gets it once a year, but you’re unlikely to get it more than once a year, and when you do catch the flu, symptoms are usually mild. However, there’s the occasional case of someone catching it twice in a season or getting an especially bad case. After the 2020–21 survey, that analogy appears to hold.

Footnotes

[1] David R. Wheeler, The Plot Against Student Newspapers?, THE ATLANTIC (Sept. 30, 2015), https://theatlantic.com/edutcation/archive/2015/09/the-plot-against-student-newspapers/408106/.

[2] About Us, COLLEGE MEDIA ASSOCIATION, http://www.collegemedia.org/site/about.html (last visited Jan. 24, 2022).

[3] American Association of University Professors, et al., Threats to the Independence of Student media (Dec, 2016), https://www.aaup.org/file/StudentMediaReport_0.pdf.

[4] Julia M. Moreno, The Student Journalist and Student Media Adviser Perspective of Censorship in Student Media at Public Universities across the United States (2019) (unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Nevada, Reno) (on file with ProQuest Digital Dissertations).

[5] Lindsie D. Trego, Mapping the Landscape of College Press Censorship: A Quantitative Analysis of Administrative Pressures on College Newspapers 53 (2018) (unpublished M.A. thesis, University of North Carolina) (on file with ProQuest Digital Dissertations).

[6] Papish v. Board of Curators of Univ. of Missouri, 410 U.S. 667, 670 (1973).

[7] See, e.g., Stanley v. Magrath, 719 F.2d 279, 282 (8th Cir. 1983) (“A public university may not constitutionally take adverse action against a student newspaper, such as withdrawing or reducing the paper’s funding, because it disapproves of the content of the paper”); Schiff v. Williams, 519 F.2d 257, 260–61 (5th Cir. 1975) (finding that removal of editors because of inaccuracy in student publication violated the First Amendment); Joyner v. Whiting, 477 F.2d 456, 460 (4th Cir. 1973) (holding that “[i]t may well be that a college need not establish a campus newspaper, . . . But if a college has a student newspaper, its publication cannot be suppressed because college officials dislike its editorial comment”).

[8] 484 U.S. 260 (1988). The Hazelwood court applied the forum doctrine—a complex doctrine that holds certain “spaces,” such as sidewalks and parks, to be open to all protected expression (i.e., “open forums” or “public forums”); other spaces to be open to only certain kinds of expression or only expression from specific people (i.e., “designated forums” or “limited forums”); and a third category of spaces, such as courts, to be closed to most expression (i.e., “closed forums”)—to the high school press. In doing so, the Court determined that some K-12 student publications are designated forums by policy or practice, while others are school-sponsored, classroom-based publications. For classroom-based publications, schools need only demonstrate a “legitimate pedagogical reason” for regulation of publication content in order to avoid offending the First Amendment.

[9] 412 F.3d 731, 734–36.

[10] Student Gov’t Ass’n v. Bd. Of Trs. Of the Univ. of Mass. 868 F.2d 473, 480 n. 6 (1st Cir. 1989).

[11] Hazelwood, 484 U.S. at 270–71.

[12] Id. at 267.

[13] New Voices, STUDENT PRESS L. CTR., https://splc.org/new-voices/ (last visited Jan. 24, 2022). Some of these statutes provide protections only for high school journalists.

[14] Don A. Dillman, Jolene D. Smyth, and Leah Melani Christian, INTERNET, PHONE, MAIL, AND MIXED-MODE SURVEYS: THE TAILORED DESIGN METHOD (4th ed. 2014).

[15] See, e.g., John V. Bodle, The Instructional Independence of Daily Student Newspapers, 47 JOURNALISM & MASS COMM. EDUCATOR 16 (1997) (81.4% of daily college student newspaper advisers and business managers reported their colleges had no influence over newspaper content); Gloria Elene Enloe, Examining the Effects of Hosty v. Carter Decision and Prior Restraint on the Collegiate Press: A Qualitative Study (2011) (unpublished M.A. thesis, University of Missouri) (on file with ProQuest Digital Dissertations) (identifying through in-depth interviews with college newspaper editors in the Midwest that editors feel they have primary control of newspaper content).

[16] Id.

[17] Shaniece B. Bickham and Jae-Hwa Shin, Organizational Influences on Student Newspapers, 28 SOUTHWESTERN MASS COMM. J. 1 (2013).

[18] Trego, supra note 5.

[19] Again, the practices included on the censorship index included administrative requests not to publish a story or report on an issue, subtle or overt threats of discipline of student staff members, threats of cuts to student staff members’ scholarships, threats to publication funding, threats against advisers’ jobs, and threats against student staff members’ jobs.

[20] See, e.g., Michael A. Eberts, Comparing Groups of California Community College Newspapers: A Search for Editorial Independence (1992) (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, university of Southern California) (on file with ProQuest Digital Dissertations); Russel E. Bert, Trend is Toward Supervision of Student Newspapers, 29 JOURNALISM Q. 62 (1952); V.E. Edwards, Survey Reveals Little Freedom for the College Editor, in FREEDOM AND CENSORSHIP OF THE COLLEGE PRESS 264 (1966); T.M. DeFrank, Administrative Regulation of the College Newspaper, 100 EDITOR AND PUBLISHER 14 (1967).

[21] See Vincent Filak, A Concurrent Examination of Self-Versus-Others Perceptual Bias and the Willingness to Self-Censor: A Study of College Newspaper Editors and Advisers, 89 JOURNALISM & MASS COMM. Q. 299 (2012).__

[22] Piotr Bobkowski & Genelle Belmas, Mixed Message Media: Girls’ Voices and Civic Engagement in Student Journalism, 10 GIRLHOOD STUDIES 89 (2017).