Media board chairs say they uphold free press rights, but some editors are skeptical
Whether it is called a media board, a publication board or a board of directors, the external group that governs a college student newspaper chooses either to protect or ignore the free-press rights of student journalists.
Student editors worry that being overseen by these boards, often comprised of college administrators, student government officials, journalism faculty and professional journalists, will lead to restrictions on the paper’s content. Media board chairs that the Student Press Law Center interviewed this summer maintained that boards can be beneficial to the student press.
The size, structure and responsibilities of media boards are different at every college and university.
Some media boards meet once or twice a year to approve the newspaper’s budget and to hire the editor, while other boards may convene twice a month to discuss the goals and direction of the student newspaper.
Recent controversies involving media boards have popped up at several schools.
At the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, students refused to print the newspaper until a new media board was established.
Joe Killian, former executive editor of The Carolinian, said that when the media board appointed him in the spring of 2002, they made him sign a contract stating that he would be accountable for advertising revenue and business practices. The board also told him he would be required to prepare a budget for the fiscal year and to meet as often as necessary with the adviser, who was appointed by the office of student life.
Killian said this was too much interference, and he argued that it was not the editor’s job to discuss the paper’s financial and management policies with the administration. The newspaper staff decided to stop printing The Carolinian halfway through the fall 2002 semester until a new media board was formed that the newspaper could trust.
The paper resumed operating in January 2003 after the office of student life agreed to begin restructuring the board, Killian said. The executive editor position was split into two jobs. An executive editor works with the business and financial side of the paper, while a managing editor is responsible for the editorial content. Killian has since become the managing editor.
No one has yet been appointed to the new board, said Assistant Vice Chancellor Bruce Michaels. He added that the structure is supposed to include eight students, the newspaper’s adviser and five faculty or community members.
Executive Editor Valerie Marino said she is optimistic about the new board and is hopeful that the newspaper can move on from this controversy.
“As long as they let us do things the way that they make sense, I don’t see anything wrong with it,” she said.
Student editors at Utica College and Southwest Minnesota State University are worried that similar problems will arise at their schools if media boards are implemented. (See STUDENT, page 27.)
Some media board chairs and student media experts agree, however, that the benefits of having a board can outweigh any conflicts that may arise. The SPLC surveyed six media board chairs about the relationship they have with student publications.
According to the chairs, most media boards have an understanding of and respect for the free-press rights of student journalists. However, their descriptions of their authority over the student newspaper do not always reflect that.
One of the functions of some media boards is to approve and oversee the funding of publications. Some editors and advisers are weary that this power over their purse could give boards the impression they can control content as well.
At the University of California at Davis, the media board annually reviews the fiscal policies of the daily newspaper and the campus radio station, which are both funded solely by advertising revenue.
According to the board’s constitution, the California Aggie and KDVS also are required to give financial updates to media board work groups on a monthly basis. The work groups, comprised of student government officials and administrators, review the expense statements to make sure the budget is inline and then report the budget to the board itself.
Alice Hannam, media board chair and director of the student union, said the media board approves the budget each year and then sends it to the student government for final approval. If the Aggie needs extra money for some reason, Hannam said editors use the money in their reserves. The editors are required to tell the media board their plans for using the extra money, but they do not need the board’s approval.
The situation at Cornell College in Mt. Vernon, Iowa is similar. Media board Chair Dee Ann Rexroat said the media board must first approve the budget for the student newspaper, the yearbook and the campus radio station before turning it over to the student senate, which has final approval.
The three media organizations are funded entirely through student activity fees that are doled out by the student senate each year, said Rexroat, who is also director of the college of communications.
“We advocate for each of the three media organizations to get money,” she said.
If the student newspaper needs additional funding besides the student activity fees, the media board will ask the appropriate body in the college for extra money and will share that request with the student senate.
William Click has worked with student media boards for more than 20 years. He said having a media board approve the student newspaper’s budget is beneficial.
“I would expect stability for funding if a board is in charge of it verses student government,” said Click, who is the author of the book “Governing College Media” and the mass communication department chair at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.
Some media boards also have the authority to hire and fire the editors of student newspapers. Editors are sometimes worried that those decisions stem from what the board thinks of their editorial content rather than their qualifications or performance.
At the University of Kansas, hiring the editor is one of the media board’s few responsibilities. Media board Chair Susanne Shaw said board members are very hands-off when it comes to oversight of The University Daily Kansan.
The board meets twice a year to hire the editor and approve the budget, said Shaw, a journalism professor. It does not deal with day-to-day affairs of the student newspaper.
By having a media board hire the editor each year, Click said a newspaper can avoid conflicts of interest among the staff. If the editors and adviser select the new editor, he said he worries that it could turn into a popularity contest, with editors picking their friends.
As for firing, Click said media boards should be careful when making the decision to punish an editor.
“If a paper doesn’t come out for three issues, that is a serious offense that could warrant an editor’s removal,” Click said. “If you don’t like the paper for three issues, that is not a reason to remove an editor.”
All the media board chairs surveyed said they believe they have the authority to fire the editor for content-based reasons, although they agreed they would not take a decision to fire an editor lightly.
If a student editor publishes something deemed offensive in the newspaper, such as pornography, the board of directors at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., could step in and discuss the removal of that editor, said board President Mosheh Oinounou.
Oinounou, who is also the student editor of The GW Hatchet, said that if the paper were to print something that was as extreme as pornography, the board would bring it up at a meeting and they could vote to have him removed. The board of directors at the private school, comprised of student editors, professional journalists, a student, a journalism faculty member and a university alumnus, would discuss the situation with the editor before making any decisions, Oinounou said.
“It is important for the survival of the paper to make sure the editor is acting properly,” he said. “If the editors don’t fulfill their responsibilities then it is incumbent on the board to be in check of those student editors’ powers.”
Some editors, however, fear that media boards could control the newspaper if they have the power to fire editors for content-based reasons.
The Hatchet’s board requires a vote of five of the directors to remove an editor. At Tulane University in New Orleans, however, the media board chair said she has the authority to fire an editor without getting approval from the rest of the board. Chair Rachelle Matherne said she would never take advantage of that authority.
Tulane’s media board is a branch of the student government and is comprised of the editors and managers of the five media organizations on campus, as well as student government members who serve in a non-voting capacity. According to the private school’s media board constitution, an editor or manager can be removed for “incompetence, malfeasance, negligence or illegal action.”
Students at private schools, such as George Washington and Tulane, are not guaranteed the same First Amendment protections provided to public school students by courts over the last 30 years.
Some media boards argue that publishing libelous material can be a reason to fire an editor. At the University of California at Davis, the media board chair said editors could be fired for printing something libelous. Hannam said the newspaper is expected to follow journalistic principles. She said the board would hold an editor accountable for printing libelous content.
The media board at Tulane has the authority to stop libelous content from being published. Matherne said the board could vote to postpone printing of the paper if they suspected the editors were working on an article that could be libelous. She said the media board could require lawyers to review the article. The newspaper can appeal, but she said the student government would make the final decision of whether or not to print the article.
Click said that media boards should have no authority to stop publication, even if material is possibly libelous. He said a lot of administrators are worried that articles in the student newspaper will make them look bad, but that does not make them libelous.
“Most administrators think they understand the law, but they basically don’t,” Click said. “And university attorneys don’t usually know anything about it either, so [postponing publication for review] is really a waste of time.”
The First Amendment does not allow a public school to censor even libelous material.
The media board chair at Central Michigan University said she also would have a lawyer or professional journalist review material that could potentially be libelous. Central Michigan’s board is comprised of professional and student journalists. Chair Sandy Petykiewicz, the publisher of a local newspaper, said a board member who has experience in reviewing news stories would look over the article. But she said the student editors would have the final decision of whether or not to print it.
Robert Jaross has worked with student media since the 1980s. The current director of student affairs at Florida International University said it is beneficial to have legal experts serve on media boards to prevent dilemmas over what to do if student editors are printing potentially libelous material. He said the decision on what to publish should be left to the editor.
Although there is uncertainty among media board chairs as to whether or not they can demand prior approval of potentially libelous material, all the chairs surveyed agreed that requiring approval of content for other reasons is a threat to press freedom.
The media board chair at Cornell College said that requiring prior review by the adviser for grammar and spelling mistakes was not something that media boards should have the authority to do, even at a private school. Courts have generally rejected prior review at public schools.
“If someone came up to me and said they saw errors in the paper, I would suggest they tell the editors or the adviser,” said Dee Ann Rexroat, director of the college of communications and media board chair.
When it comes to controlling the editorial content of the student newspaper by requiring prior review, Jaross said media boards should stay uninvolved for their own good, as well as for the student editors.
“The more direct content involvement the board has, the more I think the potential exists for them, and therefore for the university, to be more involved in possible litigation that may arise,” he said. “Universities could be more liable if they are more involved in content.”
Despite worries among student editors that media boards could violate their free-speech rights, the media board chairs surveyed all agreed that upholding the rights of the student journalists was one of their main priorities.
According to Click, media boards are usually not something that editors should fear. He said they can act as a buffer between the student newspaper and the administration.
If editors and advisers are worried about the implementation of a media board at their college, Click recommends that the student newspaper educate the board about student journalists’ rights. He said as long as there is communication between the board and the student newspaper, it should not be a problem.
“To have a board is a good thing,” Click said. “It takes the administration and student government out of the [newspaper’s] business.”
Fall 2003, reports