The Struggle for Control

What happens when SGA dreams become a student newspaper's nightmare?

The Washington Post removed from newsstands out of fear that the paper's candidate endorsements would unfairly influence voters. What if the government could lock the doors to The New York Times because officials thought an advertisement the paper ran yesterday was inappropriate?

These seemingly impossible scenarios are becoming increasingly common at the college newspaper level, where student editors are squaring off with student government leaders over issues of access, coverage, funding and freedom in an environment in which some people consider press to be synonymous with public relations.

"I think in many ways [the conflict] mirrors some of the friction between government and press in the 'real world' because on both sides of the fence we're trying to train our students with realistic job experiences, whether it's at the student newspaper or in student government," said Ron Johnson, faculty adviser for the Kansas State Collegian. "The difference, though, in a higher-education setting, is that sometimes student fees are involved."

At many schools, student publications and student governments are connected through the distribution of funds. Most student newspapers receive at least some funding from the university, often through mandatory student activity fees paid by all students and dispensed by the student government. This system can heighten any already -- existing conflicts between the two groups.

"When student government students have frustrations with the student newspaper, then, quite naturally, they're going to see student fees as their avenue to try and assert control," Johnson said. "That's what has happened off and on here at Kansas State and I think at many other colleges through the years."

Despite the fact that the university's financial backing keeps student newspapers operating, courts have ruled that at public schools, this does not give officials any power to interfere with the content of the newspaper. If a school has established the publication as a medium over which student editors have editorial control, the student newspaper retains similar First Amendment rights and protection from censorship as other commercial newspapers. (For more information, see the SPLC book, Law of the Student Press.)

Courts have ruled that actions by public college officials such as confiscating papers, censoring content, interfering with circulation, removing staff members and withholding funds are prohibited by the Constitution. But at some schools, where the student government dispenses activity fees, many students in elected positions appear to need a crash course in the First Amendment.

"In some ways, it's easy to see how student politicians are trying to do a good job and do the best that they can," Johnson said. "If they're [put] in charge of student fees, then they should have a say in how the fees are spent. Conversely, though, that can't entail censorship or content control over a student publication. So it's a natural formula for some frustration."

Editors of the student newspaper at New York's College of Staten Island have experienced that frustration firsthand. They are suing the school's former student government officers and the City University of New York system after college officials canceled the spring 1997 student government elections because they objected to the student newspaper's endorsement of candidates. The student government also impounded the newspapers at the printer so that students could not be influenced before the elections.

Ronald McGuire, the attorney representing the student editors, said the university wanted to dismiss the case on the grounds that student government officers are not "state actors," but he thinks their actions represent censorship by the school.

"Our position has been that the newspaper had every right to print whatever it wanted to about the election," McGuire said.

At Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md., last March, administrators ordered the paper's printer to delay delivery on the day of the student government elections at the request of the student government president who feared that the Spokesman's candidate endorsements would influence the outcome. The paper did not contain endorsements, but according to editor Kevin Howell, the administration thought the paper was not allowed to run them.

Administrators said endorsements could unfairly impact the outcome of the elections, but Howell said he thinks the newspaper has a responsibility to inform students about the candidates. Johnson agreed, saying he believes the publication of candidate endorsements is a sign of good journalism and that student newspapers that run them should be applauded, not censored.

"I think that it's an important role of the press to endorse candidates or at least make an analysis about where candidates stand because if the press doesn't do this, who will?" Johnson said. "But it plays right into the hands of this controversy between student government and student press."

Even though the endorsement of candidates has always been a traditional function of newspapers-commercial publications routinely endorse candidates in their editorial pages -- it appears that student newspapers are not always granted the same freedom. Howell said he thinks this may be because of the way student governments view student newspapers.

"I feel that, though we are not the professional media, we should be viewed pretty much the same way," Howell said. "Sometimes, particularly on this campus, administrators don't necessarily take the student newspaper seriously, and they might not think we're responsible in our coverage. However, our agenda in wanting to endorse candidates is not necessarily to pick who our favorite was but just to give students the information so they can go out and vote."

Newspapers have also traditionally served as a government watchdog, keeping those in power in check. But when this situation is recreated at the college level, where student reporters try to cover student government-the very organization that holds their paper's purse strings-the press' power is often limited.

"Over the years, student newspapers and student governments have bashed heads on how college news should be reported, especially when the two have conflicting views," said Kristen Hill, former editor of the student newspaper at Berry College in Georgia.

Last winter at New York's Hudson Valley College, the student government objected to an advertisement the paper ran for a local strip club and ordered the paper to not run it again.

After the paper's adviser quit in the midst of the dispute, the student government-which has the authority to grant or revoke charters and handle budget requests for other student organizations -- told the paper that regulations said they could not conduct business without an adviser and locked student editors out of the newspaper offices.

Although negative publicity convinced the student government to settle the matter, former Hudsonian editor Tony Gray said threats to cut off funding were common responses from student senators who had problems with the paper's content.

Student newspaper editors, who fight to have their publications taken seriously on campus by maintaining editorial standards and journalistic values of newsworthiness, often clash with their student representatives, who want to see favorable coverage of both their organization and the school.

"There's such a climate in our society, and particularly at colleges and universities, for good press," said Johnson. "From a political standpoint spin predominates, but it's not just in campus politics, it's across the entire university environment. Student organizations are incensed when campus papers don't give them good press."

Some editors say student government officials use their position as funding sources to try to obtain that positive coverage. Gray said the student senate at Hudson Valley wanted the paper to report more on its activities because, they claimed, students pay for the paper and as their elected representatives, the senators should have a voice in choosing what goes in the paper.

Last year at Michigan's Lake Superior State University, the student government even went so far as to attempt to take over the editor selection process by appointing an editor of its choosing.

Former editor Michael Guilmette said The Compass has had numerous conflicts with the SGA and said he believes student representatives do not always have an appreciation for the importance of the student press or an understanding of its responsibilities.

"I think the majority of the whole issue comes down to the fact that members of the student government did not understand the role of government in the press and the role of the press in government," Guilmette said.

Several recent instances of newspaper theft can also be attributed to controversial articles dealing with student government elections or members. Catherine Galioto, editor of The Viking News at Ocean County College in New Jersey, which experienced a student government-related newspaper theft this year, said that while student senators never hesitated to express their disapproval of what they considered to be the newspaper's "unfavorable coverage," they were always willing to let the newspaper promote other aspects of their work.

For Johnson, who has spent the past 11 years advising the Collegian and is also a former president of College Media Advisers, there are no easy resolutions to these conflicts. He said the antagonism between press and government will continue to exist, particularly when student newspapers have no choice but to receive funding from their schools' activity fees.

"I feel students do have the right to [allow their representatives to control the fee money]," he said. "But we in student media have to do our best to educate students and administrators on why content decisions should rest in the hands of the students who run publications and not those in charge of the money."

Fall 2000, reports