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Wednesday, December 16, 2015
From the President

For student journalists, the free press fight goes on

By Paul Fletcher

Good news on campus, for once. After all, student journalists have been having a rough stretch.

But before the good, here’s the bad (and the ugly).

As was big news in the news cycle (and on Twitter) for a week in November, at the University of Missouri a professor sought to shut down press coverage during high-profile protests by calling for “some muscle” to remove a student who identified himself as a journalist. Although she has apologized since, her words still are chilling.

Within the past year or so, SPJ has followed six instances where college campuses have put the squeeze on a student news outlet by dismissing or disciplining a student media adviser.

In many of the cases, the school just didn’t like what the students had been reporting.

The editor-in-chief of one paper sent SPJ a copy of his notes of a meeting with his dean. His paper had reported on mold in university buildings, based on a report that the adviser had commissioned.

Picture the tableau: Student, age 20 or 21, let’s say, gets a message that he is wanted in the administrator’s office. The dean seeks to use every bit of leverage and power he can summon.

The meeting goes like this: "I want that document." "I don’t have it." "No, you don’t understand, I want that document." "I don’t have it." "Son, I want that document now." "I don’t have it."

The dean accuses the student of running articles based on personal animus. Student makes clear that his paper was reporting the news.

When the dean realizes he has frustrated the student enough, or maybe he really didn’t have the document or maybe he has leaned on the editor enough, he turns on his best Dean-Wormer-from-Animal-House smarmy smile, tells him to go back and think about.

And at the end, he assures the editor he “remains a big [editor’s name] fan.”

In my home state of Virginia a few years ago, a college administration didn’t like that the paper had run a front-page story about student drug dealers busted in one of the dorms.

The piece was published in the spring, when high school prospects tour the school, deciding where to accept.

Newspaper staffers were shocked to find empty racks all over campus. Then they realized the empty racks were along the same route used by the admissions team for tours. Where were the papers? At the admissions office, returned after the visitors left.

Frank LoMonte runs the Student Press Law Center, and his job is to watch after all this and offer help, advice and, if necessary, legal support.

In a Facebook post, LoMonte said he had just returned from a visit to a public university where the student reporters are required to submit their interview questions for the university president in writing to a media-relations functionary.

This minion rewrites any questions that are unacceptably "negative" and sends back a script, to which the journalists are told to adhere under threat of unspecified reprisal, he said.

I asked him: At what university did this occur?

LoMonte declined to out the school, citing the need to minimize harm (See SPJ Code of Ethics, section II). The students were so frightened that he would need to get their OK before identifying the location. I am not a fan of citing incidents without names, but in this case, I trust the source.

Depressing and infuriating. Colleges and universities are supposed to promote intellectual inquiry and teach critical thinking. Instead, in these cases and others, the school leaders seek carefully to control any message.

Here’s some good news, from the state of North Dakota.

Earlier this year, the legislature passed a law called the New Voices of North Dakota Act. It protects the First Amendment rights of student journalists and public high schools and public and private colleges.

Among other things, the law means that administrators would not be able to invoke Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. That 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision held that student publications not designated as public forums have lesser First Amendment protections; school leaders could exercise prior restraint on publication.

North Dakota joined a handful of other states that have established protections for student journalists.

By resolution at the national SPJ convention in September, delegates commended the North Dakota legislature and professor Steve Listopad, who was instrumental in pushing the change.

The resolution called on SPJ members to support and encourage the passage of similar laws protecting the independence of student media across the country.

More good news: There is already a New Voices effort under way in Michigan. Here’s hoping that others will follow.

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