NEW BERN, N.C., June 22, 2005—In a victory for freedom of the student press, North Carolina’s Craven Community College has agreed to respect the independence of its student newspaper, The Communicator.
Reacting to controversy over a short-lived sex column, Craven had initially (and erroneously) claimed the college was “not authorized to provide its students an independent and open forum,” and had been considering granting prior editorial review of the paper to college administrators. But thanks to protests from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), Craven now affirms its students’ First Amendment rights.
“FIRE is very pleased that the college ultimately chose to uphold its students’ right to a free and independent press rather than enacting an unlawful and repressive policy,” remarked David French, president of FIRE. “Craven Community College, however, should never even have suggested prior review of The Communicator.”
Craven administrators first clashed with The Communicator last fall over the publication of the address of a student assault suspect. Then, after some members of the public reacted negatively to the appearance of a sex advice column in March 2005, administrators pushed a policy that would grant the right to review the paper’s content to a committee of administrators and student leaders. This proposed prior review policy came despite the newspaper editor’s immediate cancellation of the controversial column and issuance of a public apology.
The Communicator contacted SPLC and FIRE for assistance. SPLC wrote the newspaper’s editor on March 21 detailing the constitutional law regarding students’ rights to press freedom. A few weeks later, FIRE wrote Craven President Scott Ralls on April 22 urging that he review SPLC’s letter and reminding him that, “[i]n addition to being unconstitutional, administrative censorship of a college newspaper is an unreasonable and shameful abuse of authority.” President Ralls’ April 30 response to FIRE, however, denied that the college intended to curtail the First Amendment rights of students.
On May 11, members of the Communicator staff met with President Ralls and other administrators, who affirmed that the prior review policy was a dead letter and that the newspaper would enjoy editorial independence. Craven also promised to rewrite other campus policies that restricted students’ expressive rights. To put this agreement in writing, administrators and newspaper staffers drafted a memorandum of understanding to be approved by the college’s board of trustees in July.
“When faced with a controversy, a college’s first instinct should not be censorship,” declared Greg Lukianoff, FIRE’s director of legal and public advocacy. “A principled commitment to freedom makes it possible to weather any such storm.”
“The staff of The Communicator should be proud that it refused to buckle when the pressure was on,” Lukianoff concluded. “With the help of FIRE and the SPLC, the students won an important victory for press freedom.”
FIRE is a nonprofit educational foundation that unites civil rights and civil liberties leaders, scholars, journalists, and public intellectuals from across the political and ideological spectrum on behalf of individual rights, due process, freedom of expression, academic freedom, and rights of conscience at our nation’s colleges and universities. FIRE’s efforts to preserve liberty on campuses across America can be viewed at thefire.org.
Greg Lukianoff, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy, FIRE: 215-717-3473; firstname.lastname@example.org