Student media fight policy changes


Texas university rehires newspaper adviser and drops restrictive wording





This spring, administrators at three universities tried to implement tighter control over campus publications. While battles still rage on two campuses, student journalists at the University of Texas at Tyler have proclaimed victory.

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Tyler's campus newspaper, The Patriot, garnered national headlines in April and May after reports circulated that administrators were trying to impose a strict publications policy and fire the paper's adviser. Staff members refused to back down, however, and ultimately forced the university to compromise on the policy changes and reinstate Vanessa Curry as adviser.

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The debate over The Patriot's publications policy was triggered by a review of the university's operating handbook, which had contained restrictive wording about the paper since 1993. Fortunately for The Patriot, editor Melissa Tresner said, the university did not enforce the handbook's guidelines.

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When administrators proposed "minor language improvements" to the policy this spring, student journalists saw their opportunity to shed light on the policy and demand changes.

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Under the policy adopted in 1993, four administrators made up a publications board responsible for selecting an editor and adviser. The new plan would have added a fifth administrator to the board.

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The proposal also gave the board the authority to hire and fire newspaper staff and to "determine the character and policies of all student publications." In addition, anonymous articles would have been prohibited and students would have been forced to obtain permission before starting or circulating new publications at the university.

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President Rodney Mabry agreed to alter the board's composition following an April 30 meeting with Tresner. The new board, which must still be approved by the University of Texas System, includes five students, three faculty members, two professional journalists and one administrator.

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"I'm thrilled that there will be professional journalists and someone from the communications department on the board," Tresner said. "We wanted people who had experience with journalism and with newspapers so they can make wise decisions."

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Mabry also agreed to eliminate all the wording from the publications policy that threatened student's freedom of expression.

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Only days later on \nMay 3, Mabry agreed to reinstate Curry as journalism lecturer and adviser.

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Curry, who was told in April that her contract would not be renewed, said she suspected The Patriot's aggressive reporting led to her dismissal, although the university denied those allegations.

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Mabry's decision followed strong objections to the removal by the national Society of Professional Journalists and the Southwest Education Council for Journalism and Mass Communication.

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Student journalists at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Md., are again fighting to retain their press freedom after administrators attempted to clamp down on The Mountain Echo and other student media.

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"It's a siege mentality. They are really coming down hard on the newspaper people," faculty adviser William Lawbaugh said. "Right now they are changing all the rules."

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The college's media committee is attempting to replace wording like "students have the right to determine the content of student publications and broadcast programs," Lawbaugh said, to more restrictive language such as, "since this is a private college, our students generally have the freedom of expression."

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" 'Generally' is a loophole big enough to drive a truck through," Lawbaugh said. "Essentially they want to take some of the freedom away from the student editors."

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Lawbaugh, who has been a target of administrators for years, is not fighting alone. A strong group of former editors is fully behind him. The college's censorship threats started five years ago after criticism of the retiring university president and the provost was published.

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"The [college] has long had a very unrealistic attitude about student media," said Carolyn Dawson, vice president of The Mountain Echo Editors Group. "They seem to think that we were all ignorant little pre-schoolers, unable of making any kind of decisions."

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Although the tug-of-war has been long standing, Lawbaugh has not yielded. "If I leave, they'll just walk all over the student editors and install a censor instead of an adviser or a faculty member as an editor."

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The staff of The State Hornet, the newspaper at California State University at Sacramento[ is looking for answers after the paper was informed of a proposal to shift its finances.

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Trustees of the California State University system proposed the change in March. The communications department would take over the paper's finances from the university-affiliated Associated Students Inc. because of liability concerns.

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Associated Students Inc. handles the Hornet's finances and accounting, editor Layla Bohm said, and the university views the newspaper as a subsidiary of the organization because students receive their paychecks from Associated Students Inc.

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"They are saying that because ASI acts as our employer of record, that makes them liable for us if we get sued," Bohm said.

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Even though the Hornet would rather continue its relationship with Associated Students Inc., the paper is willing to make the transition to the communications department. Bohm said she was angered that the move "was done without contacting us."

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"We have a lot of questions like, 'What happens when we move to the department? Do we lose control? Who handles our money?' " she said. The Hornet receives about $300,000 for expenses and compensation and has money in reserve.

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"If the money goes to the university, we have to follow university policies and we don't even know what they are. Nobody told us," Bohm said.

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The staff is working to secure money for years to come, assuring that it is not used for university purposes detrimental to the Hornet.

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One small battle has already been won. The university's fiscal office has agreed not to sign off on the budget for this year, eliminating the possibility of violating the paper's financial independence, Bohm said.


reports, Spring 2002