Under Pressure: The Warning Signs of Student Newspaper Censorship

Under Pressure: The Warning Signs of Student Newspaper Censorship

In his concurring opinion in New York Times Co. v. United States (1971), Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote that purpose of the press is “to serve the governed, not the governors.” So, too, is the purpose of the student press to serve the university’s constituents, not the university.

Student journalists play a vital role in their communities, often serving as a check on their academic institutions or finding stories that might escape other members of the media, especially as local news outlets struggle to stay open. Examples abound from 2019 alone. In September, the University of Georgia’s The Red & Black conducted an investigation based on an open records request that uncovered a massive “lack of financial oversight” occurring over a decade in the university’s Greek Life Office. That same month, Arizona State University’s The State Press was first to break the news of the resignation of Kurt Volker, the State Department’s special envoy for Ukraine and a figure in a whistleblower’s complaint about the Trump administration’s dealings with Ukraine. And multiple student journalists filed lawsuits against their universities, including Ohio State University and Western Washington University, to defend their right to access public records.

According to Frank LoMonte, director of the University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information and former director of the Student Press Law Center, “you may have a powerful, well-funded government agency that’s being watched by nobody” if student media organizations cease to operate.

But too often, student journalists are expected to act as publicists rather than journalists. And when they stray from the misplaced expectations of administrators — and sometimes even their fellow students — student journalists all too often face consequences. In our 20 years of defending student and faculty rights, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has seen the different forms those consequences take, whether in blunt acts of newspaper theft or comparatively subtle efforts to punish newspaper advisers who fail to rein in their staff.

In “Under Pressure: The Warning Signs of Student Newspaper Censorship,” FIRE addresses cases of censorship we’ve seen student newspapers face, and we offer a list of warning signs student journalists should be on the lookout for. Encounter any of these red flags? Contact FIRE.

Warning signs:

DEFUNDING & DERECOGNITION

Student newspapers often require access to funds, resources, office space, and formal recognition as a registered student organization to successfully operate. When they publish a controversial investigation or opinion piece, those resources are too often the first target for aggrieved administrators and fellow students who hope that removing access to those resources will deter student journalists from publishing again.

Texas State University: The University Star

In November 2017, independent student paper The University Star published an opinion column critical of white people titled “Your DNA is an abomination.” Backlash from multiple levels of leadership within the university was swift, resulting in a petition to strip the paper of its funding and a threat from the president of the student government to call for an “emergency meeting” to discuss defunding if the editorial staff did not resign. The director of the university’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications announced that she was forming a committee to review the newspaper’s editorial process. FIRE, the Student Press Law Center, and the National Coalition Against Censorship wrote to Texas State University’s president, reminding her that any attack on the newspaper’s funding because of its content would violate the First Amendment. The university’s response failed to offer any concrete commitment to safeguarding students’ First Amendment rights, earning the university a spot on FIRE’s 2018 “10 worst” list.

University of California San Diego: The Koala

In November 2015, satirical student newspaper The Koala published an article titled “UCSD Unveils New Dangerous Space on Campus,” which mocked campus “safe spaces” and contained multiple slurs. Days later, UCSD’s student government voted to end its funding of most student media organizations as a means to punish The Koala. FIRE called on UCSD to restore funding to all student media organizations in accordance with its legal responsibilities, but the paper’s rights were not vindicated until July 2019, when the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed a lower court’s dismissal of The Koala’s First Amendment lawsuit. The lawsuit was filed by the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties.

Wesleyan University: The Wesleyan Argus

After The Wesleyan Argus published a controversial student op-ed critical of the Black Lives Matter movement in September 2015, some Wesleyan students started a petition demanding that the newspaper lose its funding. Copies of the paper quickly found their way into campus trash cans — a phenomenon covered in greater length later in this report. The Wesleyan Student Assembly approved a resolution that proposed redistributing the Argus’ print budget among other student publications at Wesleyan based in part on the popularity of the publications, putting student media at Wesleyan at risk of viewpoint-discriminatory funding. FIRE sent multiple letters calling on the WSA and Wesleyan University’s president to ensure that student media funding would be allocated in a viewpoint-neutral manner. In April 2016, the WSA voted to create the Media Publications Fund Committee, a group meant to exist outside of the control of the WSA that would allocate funding to student media, with the intention of alleviating concerns that student press could be punished by the WSA for publishing unpopular material.

INVESTIGATIONS

A university doesn’t always need to punish student journalists to control what they print. Sometimes, the threat of punishment implied by an investigation, or the stress caused by the process of the investigation, is enough to pressure students into staying silent rather than risking harm to their studies or future careers. Federal courts have concluded that investigations into protected speech can constitute violations of the First Amendment, even if they don’t result in formal punishment. In Sweezy v. New Hampshire (1957), the Supreme Court noted that government investigations “are capable of encroaching upon the constitutional liberties of individuals” and have an “inhibiting effect in the flow of democratic expression.”

University of Wisconsin – Superior: Promethean

Early springtime is known for a few things: blooming flowers, March Madness, April Fools’ Day, April Fools’ Day student newspaper editions, and investigations into April Fools’ Day student newspaper editions. Student newspapers’ April Fools’ editions are a staple of campus life and, given their tendency to lampoon their communities, they tend to attract negative attention. At the University of Wisconsin – Superior, that attention quickly turned into an investigation when the Promethean’s 2016 April Fools’ edition included an article satirizing Jewish stereotypes — written by the paper’s editor to joke about the stereotypes he encounters about his own culture. After fielding complaints from students, UWS wrote in a Facebook post that the university “will not tolerate any form of disrespect” and announced that it was “actively investigating” the “formal grievance filed against the student newspaper.” UWS reversed course and made the right decision after a letter from FIRE, confirming to Promethean staffers in a meeting that the investigation had been dropped.

University of Alaska Fairbanks: The Sun Star

The Sun Star suffered through a nearly year-long sexual harassment investigation beginning in April 2013 after publishing two articles that prompted complaints at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. One article was an April Fools’ Day satire about “a new building in the shape of a vagina,” and the other offered an investigation into the “UAF Confessions” Facebook page. After the university found that the paper had not engaged in sexual harassment, the complainant — a professor — appealed, leading UAF to retain an outside attorney to review UAF’s investigation and conclusions. When the review had still not been completed by January of the following year, FIRE wrote a letter asking UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers to conclude the investigation. He did so weeks later, announcing that the second, external investigation had once again fully exonerated the newspaper.

Brandeis University: The Justice

In February 2016, three editors of The Justice were notified that a student had filed a complaint against them over their coverage of a “Take Back the Night” march, a protest against sexual violence, that took place on Brandeis’ campus. The complaint alleged that the editors violated a Brandeis policy against invasions of privacy via surreptitious audio or visual recordings by publishing an article containing anonymous quotes from marchers without first obtaining their consent. FIRE wrote to Brandeis Interim President Lisa Lynch to explain that accurately and anonymously quoting students who spoke publicly at an event that was openly recorded does not constitute an invasion of privacy. Within days, Brandeis dropped the investigation.

THEFT & DESTRUCTION

Newspaper theft remains one of the most ineffective ways to stop the spread of a story, but that hasn’t stopped targets of unflattering coverage from trying it — or from learning a well-deserved lesson about the “Streisand Effect.” Although newspaper theft doesn’t accomplish its perpetrators’ goal in the age of internet news, it still can be a thorn in the side of student journalists forced to cope with the loss of their time, money, and resources.

Florida Atlantic University: University Press

Florida Atlantic University’s student newspaper has proven more than once to be a lightning rod on its campus. The University Press experienced newspaper theft a number of times in recent years, including two thefts in 2010. And in 2016, more than 800 copies of the University Press’ March 29 edition were thrown in the trash. The editor-in-chief at the time believed the reason for the theft was an article titled “Party where student was allegedly gang raped last year to happen again.” Then again in 2019, stacks of papers featuring a cover story detailing rape accusations against an FAU quarterback were stolen and trashed. This time, University Press staff had a message to the thieves whose act of censorship brought widespread media coverage to the paper: Thanks for drawing attention to the story.

Colorado State University: The Rocky Mountain Collegian

Until it was repealed in 2013, Colorado’s newspaper theft law made taking more than five copies of a free publication with the intent to keep others from reading it a misdemeanor. The Rocky Mountain Collegian’s experience with newspaper theft in 2019 demonstrated why such a law is still needed. After publishing a cover story alleging that a student government presidential candidate and his running mate had misreported their campaign finances, The Collegian reported that “multiple eyewitnesses” saw members of the campaign team taking and destroying copies of the paper. The campaign issued a statement about the alleged theft, writing in part that “members of multiple campaigns redistributed newspapers across campus.” In this case, “redistributed” appears to have meant “thrown in the trash.”

Radford University: The Tartan

In September 2019, The Tartan ran a cover story about the unexpected death of the new chair of Radford’s criminal justice department alongside a story about a Radford freshman who was found dead in a jail cell after an on-campus arrest for public intoxication. After the issue was published, the paper’s editor-in-chief received an email from Radford’s vice president of student affairs inviting the paper’s staff to meet for a discussion with administrators. Shortly after, The Tartan’s staff noticed that copies of the paper had disappeared from the stands, with nearly 1,000 of 1,500 papers missing. In their meeting with the paper’s staff, administrators suggested they had received a number of complaints about The Tartan and went on to recommend that administrators sit in on weekly staff meetings — an offer The Tartan smartly rejected. Though Radford’s police department initially refused, they ultimately chose to investigate the theft.

CENSORSHIP DEMANDS

Some censorship efforts are subtle and difficult to detect. Others? Not so much. Though they should know better, that hasn’t stopped administrators at a number of universities from unashamedly demanding that student journalists censor their work or avoid covering certain topics to preserve the university’s reputation.

University of Tulsa: The Collegian

The University of Tulsa did its best to make sure it earned a spot on FIRE’s 2016 “10 worst” list when it unjustly banned a student from campus for Facebook posts that someone else admitted to writing, and then attempted to intimidate student journalists who were covering the story. TU student paper The Collegian reported on the student’s suspension and voiced criticism of the lack of due process offered in his case. When its journalists reached out to TU’s administration for comment, they were warned by TU’s director of marketing and communications against publishing “anything that the university deems to be confidential” because it “could violate university policies.” The university then, of course, refused to explain what information would be “confidential,” leaving Collegian journalists uncertain of what would result in punishment — ambiguity that conveniently advanced the university’s goal of chilling criticism.

Santa Clara University: The Santa Clara

In February 2017, The Santa Clara wrote about a $100 million donation from an alumnus and included a comment from the alumnus that appeared to criticize a Santa Clara University dean. SCU Vice Provost Jeanne Rosenberger then requested that The Santa Clara’s editor-in-chief remove the article, prompting a letter from FIRE. When pressed for a justification, Rosenberger referred the paper’s editor-in-chief to SCU General Counsel John Ottoboni, who would only speak with the newspaper off the record. Ottoboni told media that the story’s “potential for harm outweighed the benefit” and that students “have to realize that compassion goes with this.” The Santa Clara ultimately decided to cut the portion of the article containing the comments about the dean, but it also issued an editorial titled “Censored But Not Silenced,” which criticized the university for flouting the paper’s editorial independence. The editorial noted: “We are not a talking piece for the administration. Rather, we approach issues with a critical eye and the mission of holding the powerful accountable. Our loyalty is to our readers and our readers only.”

University of Southern California: Daily Trojan and Annenberg Media

In September 2018, student journalists associated with news outlets at the University of Southern California, including the Daily Trojan and Annenberg Media, were warned that they could not record or take notes during a university-hosted “public forum” offering community members an opportunity to weigh in on the search for the university’s new president. The Daily Trojan reported that after it “tweeted news of the media ban, the same USC representative [who warned against note-taking] asked [its] reporter to delete the tweet.” The paper’s editorial board added, “[I]t is within our right as USC’s independent student-run newspaper, to cover a public forum open to all members of the USC community.” FIRE wrote to USC’s Interim President to call for the university to discontinue its efforts to interfere with student journalists’ ability to report. Soon after, USC apologized and issued a statement saying that “student media reporters were mistakenly told by a University Communications staff person that they were not permitted to report from inside the session.”

PRIOR REVIEW

Prior review and prior restraint are among the most noxious forms of censorship. The former occurs when administrators enjoy the power to review material before it’s communicated or published; the latter when they are able to remove material before it can be published. Prior restraint is so frowned upon that the Supreme Court of the United States has observed that the “chief purpose” of the First Amendment is to prevent prior restraint.

Craven Community College: The Campus Communicator

In March 2005, The Campus Communicator printed a column titled “Between the Sheets,” suggesting ideas to “jolt tired sex lives,” which prompted readers to complain about the column to the newspaper’s staff and to Craven Community College’s administrators. In response, administrators proposed changes to the governance of the newspaper that would drastically reduce its independence, allowing for prior review of newspaper content by the college’s administrators. At a meeting with the paper’s staff, the college’s president claimed that the public college is “not authorized to provide an independent and open forum.” After letters from FIRE and the Student Press Law Center, the college dropped its prior review proposal and affirmed The Campus Communicator’s independence.

Liberty University: Liberty Champion

Liberty University’s censorship of its student press is so pervasive that FIRE has deemed it a “tradition” at the university. Although Liberty is a private institution that has the right to prioritize other values ahead of students’ right to speak freely, Liberty President Jerry Falwell, Jr. claimed in 2016 that “Liberty University promotes the free expression of ideas unlike many major universities.” That claim rings false when contrasted with Falwell’s insistence on editorial control over “student” newspaper Liberty Champion, in part by installing his personal spokesman as a “consultant” to the newspaper. In October 2016, the paper’s sports editor wrote a column critical of comments made by President Donald Trump in the leaked Access Hollywood tapes. According to the column’s author, Falwell cancelled the column before it could be printed. Then in 2018, Falwell stopped the paper from running any articles about a religious leader who was told he could not pray on Liberty’s campus. WORLD Magazine reported that “edited stories before publication must go through a two- or three-stage approval process: first to the faculty adviser, then to a panel of faculty members, and after that possibly to Falwell himself for approval before publishing.” FIRE wrote to Liberty in 2018 asking the university to square its history of requiring Falwell’s permission to publish with his public statements about the university’s free speech commitments. The university has refused to do so.

Quinnipiac University: The Quinnipiac Chronicle

In the spring of 2007, Quinnipiac University stopped the staff of The Quinnipiac Chronicle from publishing news online before the same news appeared in print, marking the beginning of a series of efforts to interfere with the student press. Quinnipiac’s president defended his university’s behavior by saying, “[D]inosaurs like me who read the hard copy version get an opportunity to read it before the external world hears about it.” He added, “This is an issue of how a university campus can have serious discussions with students in a way that is not a press conference to the world.” After the paper’s editor called the policy “ridiculous,” Quinnipiac’s vice president for public affairs stated that “student leaders, especially those in paid positions, are expected to generally be supportive of university policies.” In protest of a new policy allowing the dean of students to select the paper’s editorial board, applicants withdrew their applications and Quinnipiac’s student journalists instead began work on an independent online news source, The Quad News.

PRESSURE ON ADVISERS

At a public university or a private institution that makes free speech commitments, administrators are prohibited from taking action to control, chill, or punish student media content based on a dislike of the expression in which students have engaged. That includes retaliatory action taken against advisers, often faculty members, who counsel student journalists on writing, editing, and publishing their work. But that hasn’t stopped universities from punishing advisers for doing their jobs instead of turning student journalists into university mouthpieces.

East Carolina University: The East Carolinian

In 2012, East Carolina University invited controversy after firing its director of student media, Paul Isom, who advised the campus radio station, television station, yearbook, and several student magazines. Isom was fired in response to a decision by the editorial board of student newspaper, The East Carolinian, to run unedited photos of a nude streaker at an ECU football game on the front page of a November 2011 issue. Calling the decision to run the photos “in very poor taste,” ECU’s Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs had warned that ECU officials did not support the decision to print them. Isom’s firing prompted letters from FIRE, the Student Press Law Center, and others noting that the university’s behavior violated the First Amendment and constituted a naked act of censorship. Isom later sued the university, and in April 2012 he and ECU issued a joint statement referring to “a difference in philosophy” and announcing a settlement in which Isom would receive $31,200. In the settlement, ECU also admitted that the firing was “not for cause.”

University of North Alabama: The Flor-Ala

Curious as to why a vice president had suddenly resigned and a professor had been banned from campus, The Flor-Ala asked for personnel files from the University of North Alabama under Alabama’s public records laws in the fall of 2018. When the university resisted the request, The Flor-Ala wrote about its response, earning a meeting with an “angry” provost and the newspaper’s adviser, Scott Morris. Only 10 days later, the provost informed Morris that the required qualifications for his position as Flor-Ala adviser would be changing. Going forward, The Flor-Ala’s adviser would be required to have a Ph.D. — which, coincidentally, Morris did not possess, despite decades of professional newsroom experience. UNA claimed that it had been planning this change in the job qualifications since 2014, sharing emails it said cleared the university from accusations of retaliation. But the head of the communications department from 2009 to 2015 wasn’t aware of such a decision, and the purportedly exonerating emails show a UNA dean discussing changes to the adviser’s role after a 2015 conflict over content in The Flor-Ala. UNA’s behavior earned a well-deserved censure from the College Media Association, a protest edition from The Flor-Ala, a letter from FIRE, and a spot on FIRE’s 2019 “10 Worst” list.

Le Moyne College: The Dolphin

Le Moyne College’s student newspaper, The Dolphin, staged a months-long protest after longtime adviser and professor Alan Fischler was dismissed in November 2005 for not exercising more control over the paper. Fischler alleged that he was pushed out of his adviser role by administrators who said they wanted a more “hands-on” adviser who would make The Dolphin a “showpiece” for Le Moyne. Upon learning that Le Moyne’s administration would handpick a replacement adviser, The Dolphin’s staff began a strike. The college’s decision earned criticism from FIRE and the Student Press Law Center and a censure from the College Media Association, which was finally removed in 2007 “after administrative changes ushered in a more supportive environment and have led to more freedoms for The Dolphin student newspaper.”

MEDIA RELATIONS POLICIES

Faculty members are often experts in their fields and can be useful resources for student, local, and national media outlets in explaining complicated issues to the public. But some universities have crafted restrictive policies that frustrate the ability of faculty members to speak with the media, effectively imposing a gag order. Student journalists — who are increasingly important members of local media, too — have found themselves impacted by such policies.

Loyola University Chicago

In 2018, Loyola University Chicago unveiled a “Media Relations Policy” created to enhance its “brand.” The new policy required that faculty and staff request approval from public relations staff for “statements” to the media — and that included the student newspaper, too. As could be expected, the policy limited student journalists’ ability to report on important issues affecting Loyola students. Concerned about the clash between this policy’s limits on its community members’ expression and the university’s free speech commitments, FIRE and PEN America wrote to the university in February 2019 to encourage university leadership to rescind the policy. Commendably, Loyola revised the policy months later to better protect student and faculty rights and square its policies with its promises of free speech.

Alamo Colleges District

In September 2018, FIRE wrote to the board of trustees of the Alamo Colleges District after being contacted by ACD faculty members concerned about a proposed communications policy that would require professors to “notify the [District Support Operations] Communications Office or the college PR office in advance” of speaking with a member of the media. The policy also specifically noted that requests from student media would fall under its ambit, too. FIRE’s letter warned that “these requirements impermissibly burden faculty expression protected by the First Amendment.” An ACD attorney wrote to FIRE that the proposed policy “was not adopted or approved” which ACD institution San Antonio College student newspaper The Ranger confirmed. The Ranger’s editors had also voiced opposition to the policy, writing that requiring faculty to “check with PR before media interviews . . . is not a form of training; it is a method of control.”

Ithaca College

Ithaca College’s media relations policy stands out because it didn’t restrict how faculty could speak to student journalists, but rather how student journalists could speak to administrators. In October 2012, independent student magazine Buzzsaw Magazine reported that the college adopted a new policy that “requires that student media outlets seeking interviews with college administrators must submit all interview requests through the Ithaca College Office of Media Relations. The policy encompasses 84 administrators, including school deans, student services faculty, financial and admissions personnel, and — of course — President [Tom] Rochon.” Students quickly launched a protest to the policy’s overreach into student media and accused the college of “cherry-picking” favorable sources. Their complaints were heard; in November 2012, student newspaper The Ithacan reported that Rochon rescinded the short-lived policy.

CONCLUSION

As a student journalist, you know how to spot threats to press freedom on your campus. But what should you do when you encounter them? First, develop a concrete understanding of your rights — whether at a private or public university — and the policies and safeguards that protect them at your institution. If your university does not offer policies that protect student journalists, or maintains policies that do the opposite, be proactive and advocate for policy reform at your college before it’s necessary. FIRE can help with that.

The second step is to document every meeting and all correspondence — like emails, letters, and phone calls — shared between newspaper staff and university administrators when you believe you’re experiencing an act of censorship. Documentation can be vital in exposing inappropriate or unconstitutional interference with students’ rights.

Finally, contact FIRE when efforts to censor your newspaper or its staff are underway or have been threatened. We’ve defended the rights of thousands of students and may be able to help you, too.

Student journalists play an essential role in ensuring transparency in institutions that often reject it. FIRE is here to make sure unconstitutional or illiberal barriers don’t stand in their way.