Hold that thought
Student newspapers say college officials censored them out of fear of liability
When two student newspapers this spring covered the hiring and firing practices of their colleges, administrators ordered a review of the papers’ content because they said they were concerned about accuracy in reporting.
One paper was then told to cut a story, while the other paper was confiscated and held for two days.
The colleges’ actions were protested by student journalists who are demanding their autonomy and criticized by college advisers as a slam to press rights.
The president of Loyola University at New Orleans forced The Maroon in May to delete an article that reported that the head of the school’s music program was fired. Scott Fredrickson, the Conrad N. Hilton Eminent Scholar in Music Industry Studies, was seen by students being escorted off campus by police.
The newspaper carried anonymous quotes by several faculty members and students, who offered their speculation for the reasons behind Fredrickson’s abrupt departure.
President Bernard Knoth said the article was conjecture and that he had the right to remove misleading material because the policy at the private Jesuit university provides the president authority over the paper, a university spokesperson confirmed.
In mid-April, the student life director at Community College of Baltimore County confiscated the entire press run of its student newspaper to “fact-check” content, only to release it two days later after many students had left campus for spring break. Articles and editorials in previous editions of the paper, the Red and Black,had accused the public college of being “top heavy” by hiring too many administrators and too few faculty members.
Peter Law, director of student life, said he held the 1,000 press run because newspaper adviser Dell Hagan, who was on sick leave, had not looked over the edition.
“I was very concerned, as anybody in my position would be, to make sure that everything was done correctly, whether it’s grammatical or mistakes in researching issues and facts,” Law said. “That was my only reason for delaying it.”
John David Reed, the former chair of the press law committee for College Media Advisers, said the prior approval of the Red and Black is a direct violation of the First Amendment.
He said the same does not hold true for the censorship at Loyola because private schools are not bound to the Constitution, but nonetheless he said that the president’s actions sent the wrong message.
“In both instances, private schools and public schools, we have college administrators who are not doing the jobs they were hired to do, which is to teach their students how to be good citizens of the United States of America,” Reed said, who is a journalism professor at Eastern Illinois University.
“And in the United States, we do not set the example that the government censors its people. We set the example that the government respects wide-open robust debate as the Supreme Court said,” he added.
Student editors and their advisers contend that administrators censored them for fear that they could be held accountable for the content.
David Morey, who was editor in chief of the Red and Black this past school year, said Law held the newspaper for fear of retaliation from administrators offended by content. The Red and Black falls under the auspices of the office of student life.
“The purpose for [Law’s confiscation] was to cover his job security from the administration, who has had a tendency to react negatively to bad press consistently over a number of years,” Morey said.
Law said his decision was not based on a personal agenda, nor was he attempting to censor the newspaper.
At Loyola, Liz Scott, adviser to The Maroon, said Knoth told her to remove the article because he was worried that if the newspaper reported Fredrickson was fired, the music chair could use that against the university if he filed a lawsuit.
Fredrickson confirmed to The Times-Picayune that he left Loyola. His departure came just days after The Maroon ran a vaguely threatening commentary by him on April 25. In “On the Record,” a weekly column written by a faculty member, Fredrickson contemplated the karmic law of “what goes around comes around” in response to, what he said were “unfortunate actions from people whom I respected and thought were friends.”
Knoth could not be reached for comment, but Kristine David Lelong, director of public affairs, said personnel issues are kept confidential to respect the privacy rights of individuals.
“What he had to do was basically balance the rights of The Maroon with the rights of the people involved. And the best thing at the time [was] to pull the article,” Lelong said.
Courts have suggested that universities, including private colleges, are not liable for what a student newspaper prints as long as the administration does not control content.
Scott said Knoth had never read the newspaper’s content prior to publication before the Fredrickson piece. She said the newspaper is currently trying to convince the administration that it should not require prior review of content.
Scott contends that Knoth should not be responsible for what the students write.
“You know you don’t teach a baby how to walk by holding his hand all the time, you let him go. That’s the way you learn,” Scott said.
Meanwhile, student journalists at the Community College of Baltimore County thus far have struck down administrators’ attempts to implement a formal policy of prior review. Morey said the newspaper has often gone to press without the approval of even the adviser.
“They tried to insist on prior approval, and we have explained numerous times that we don’t do it,” said Morey. “It lacks integrity. It’s wrong. You don’t give prior approval to people you write your paper about. You don’t give it to anyone.”
The federal appellate court that has jurisdiction over Maryland has ruled colleges cannot require the approval of controversial articles.
Still Law said he would delay distribution of the paper in the future if he thought some material needed review.
Morey sees this as a threat to student press rights.
“There’s a need for somebody with a strong knowledge of press law willing to go toe to toe with the administration at all times because otherwise we’ll end up being a publicity paper for the college,” he said.
Community college of baltimore county, Fall 2003, Loyola University at New Orleans, reports