Threats to Freedom of the Press on Campus, 2009-2010

July 15, 2010

Over at The Huffington Post, Dan Reimold provides an alarming list of violations and threats to freedom of the press on college campuses from the past academic year.

FIRE was involved in several of these cases where students, administrators, or other campus officials—and in one case a county prosecutor—interfered with campus press.

Not only was Coach Morriss blustering on record about being proud of his team’s lawless disregard for speech, but all signs point towards him actually planning the mass theft, since even the school’s own Athletic Director thinks the team is too dumb to put together the scheme by themselves.

  • Yet another case of newspaper theft occurred at American University (AU), with vandalism to boot. This case did not make it onto Reimold’s list, but FIRE today has sent AU a letter asking about the status of the investigation, now that at least one student has admitted taking part.
  • FIRE also is investigating the strict enforcement of a relatively recent rule at Missouri Southern State University, which seems to ban professors from talking with the media unless they are contacted through the Director of University Relations. Every once in a while we hear of another school that, like MSSU, has "gone corporate" and decided that controlling the university’s message is more important than freedom of speech.
  • FIRE and the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) intervened at the University of Utah on behalf of editors of the independent student paper after the administration threatened to withhold their degrees, pending personal meetings with university officials, because of vulgar "hidden" words spelled out in the paper.
  • Will and I also reported on attempts by Virginia Tech administrators to strong-arm The Collegiate Times into changing its policy of allowing anonymous comments on its website, like many newspapers do nationwide. Reimold quotes my opinion about these attempts, which ultimately failed:

Virginia Tech is acting because of content-based concerns, which is plainly unconstitutional. Virginia Tech, after all, is a public university bound by the First Amendment, although it seems that Virginia Tech has little interest in acknowledging this fact. … Woe be to Virginia Tech."

Reimold has more information about these cases and several others in his story. The good news, however, according to Reimold, is this:

Simply put, it is tougher than ever to mess with the student press. The organizational backing on a national level—including the SPLC, SPJ [Society of Professional Journalists], FIRE, and the Associated Collegiate Press (ACP)—has never been stronger. The web also enables a rapid response scenario in which the professional press, the blogosphere, and the Twitterverse can immediately band together, offer advice and other assistance, and spread the word about an injustice worldwide. The responses often create public relations nightmares for student press opponents.

They also breed confidence. Student media are now much more secure drawing firm lines in the sand over controversial issues because they know they will not be alone when times get tough. Nowadays, a fight against a particular student press outlet is also a fight against college media, free press advocates, and the very power of the web itself.

Thanks to Dan Reimold for being part of the fight. We often cite the words of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis to this end: sunlight is said to be one of the best disinfectants.

Schools:  American University