Unfit to print?
University officials threaten student speech through confiscation, prior review, speech codes
When Hampton University’s acting President JoAnn Haysbert seized the entire press run of the student newspaper in October, student editors fought her decision by enlisting help from several professional media organizations.
With support from the National Association of Black Journalists, the American Society of Newspaper Editors and others, editors of The Script reached an agreement with Haysbert to reprint the issue and form a task force to determine the role of the newspaper at the university.
Within a week of the initial agreement, however, Haysbert changed the composition of the task force without consulting anyone. And within three weeks of the newspaper seizure, Hampton lost funding for a $55,000 grant from the ASNE.
Though Hampton University received the harshest criticism and toughest financial consequences for censoring speech, it was one of a number of universities where administrators, students and community members attempted to curtail speech this fall.
The conflict at Hampton arose when The Script attempted to run a front-page article in its Oct. 22 issue about numerous health code violations at the school’s cafeteria. Haysbert demanded that the newspaper run a letter from her to the campus community alongside the news article. When the editors refused, Haysbert seized the entire press run.
“We didn’t print something where they wanted it,” said Talia Buford, editor of The Script. “And they took the papers away.”
Two days after administrators prevented distribution of the newspaper, Buford and other Script editors agreed to reprint Haysbert’s letter on the front page in exchange for the creation of a task force that would have the power to make binding recommendations for the role of the newspaper on campus.
The original agreement called for the task force to be comprised predominately of people with a journalism background, including Buford, the director of the journalism school, a journalism professor, the three Script advisers, a school administrator and an additional student member of the newspaper staff. Hampton journalism professor Earl Caldwell, a veteran journalist, was appointed chairman of the task force.
Days later, Haysbert added three additional professors to the task force — none with a background in journalism — without consulting the members.
“I have mixed feelings,” Buford said when the committee’s makeup was changed. “[Haysbert] did say [the task force would] ‘include,’ not ‘comprise’ [the original members], but I was under the impression that it would be the whole task force. It’s kind of disheartening.”
In her letter to the campus community before the incident, Haysbert described the university’s efforts to eliminate health code violations in the cafeteria and said that the university should not be singled out for its violations.
“[T]wo other local universities had multiple violations, some critical and some noncritical, but it is interesting that there was no media attention given to these institutions,” she wrote. “The question that a number of us have is, why single out Hampton University?”
Almost immediately, professional journalists condemned the university’s actions.
“I made a personal call to the editor [Buford], and let her know that I and every member of NABJ stands behind her,” said Herbert Lowe, president of the National Association of Black Journalists and a crimes and courts reporter for Newsday.
“We are not going to rest until we are convinced that black students at this prestigious university have a shot at getting … trained for jobs in the year and years to come,” Lowe said, referring to Hampton’s status as a historically black university.
Shortly after the seizure, the ASNE said the university’s $55,000 grant, which was used to fund workshops for high school journalism teachers, would be withheld.
“It’s an unfortunate situation … We want to be clear that this is not a reflection on the principles or faculty of the journalism school but on the actions of the senior administrators,” said Diana Mitsu Klos, senior project director for the ASNE.
After the ASNE withdrew its funding, ASNE President Peter Bhatia echoed Mitsu Klos’ comments.
“Our point here is not designed to harm anyone or wag our fingers at anyone,” Bhatia said. “It’s just that the ASNE is an organization of newspaper editors, and in our view, [the university’s decision] flies in the face of the press freedoms of our nation and our society.”
University forms review committee
Editors of a student publication at Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island, fought for their free press rights after university administrators formed a publications review committee as a result of “offensive” content in the student publication.
The committee was formed two weeks after conservative students and college administrators clashed over the September edition of the Roger Williams College Republicans’ newsletter, The Hawk’s Right Eye.
The controversy began when, in the Sept. 30 edition of the newsletter, the College Republicans took aim at a campus visit by Judy Shepard, whose son Matthew was the victim of an anti-gay murder, and James Dale, who was kicked out of the Boy Scouts for being gay.
In the issue, a front-page article accused “militant homosexuals” of attacking free speech by pushing for hate-crimes legislation. Jason Mattera, editor of the newsletter, wrote in another article that a nationally known gay and lesbian rights group encourages children to engage in homosexual sex.
The private university’s committee will require each student publication or radio program to be reviewed by its adviser prior to being printed or broadcast. If an adviser finds certain content objectionable, the five-member committee will review the content and decide if the publication or radio program can state its affiliation with the university, said Jason Mattera, editor of The Hawk’s Right Eye.
The faculty senate is also creating “community standards,” which would outline what can and cannot be published by a student group, Mattera said.
Both the committee and the senate’s “community standards” will affect all student publications and radio programs, Mattera said.
Suspended journalist reinstated
New York’s Suffolk Community College in October lifted a sanction that barred student journalist Ursula Monaco from participating in college media activities because she sent an e-mail that offended a school official.
“I was banned from all three campus newspapers,” Monaco said.
Monaco’s suspension stemmed from an incident in May when Monaco, as an editor for her campus newspaper, contacted the adviser for a different newspaper within the community college system to request a photograph. When the adviser declined the request, Monaco accidentally sent an insulting e-mail to the adviser that she intended to send to a friend.
Monaco said that, since the ban was lifted, she has signed up to work on her newspaper again and is working as a staff writer. The infraction and punishment, however, remain on her disciplinary record.
Student sues over speech codes
Ryan Cooper, a student at Southwest Missouri State University, filed a lawsuit in November against the university, alleging that it violated his First Amendment rights by imposing speech zones and restrictions on the distribution of his newspaper.
Cooper, with the help of the Alliance Defense Fund, said he brought the suit after he became frustrated with what he said were the university’s restrictions on his speech. The suit claims that those restrictions included the “Bear Paw,” a zone to which all debates, rallies and protests are restricted.
Cooper also alleged that he, as well as the staff of his publication, The Bear Review, had their speech rights abridged because they were not allowed to freely distribute copies of the newspaper around campus. Cooper is president of the campus group Young Americans for Freedom, which publishes the newspaper.
“It was the fact that they restricted us in distributing the paper [that I filed suit],” he said.
John Black, general counsel for the university, said school officials stand by the school’s speech policies and that it will defend itself against the lawsuit.
“We disagree with the allegations of the complaint, we disagree that they are unconstitutional,” he said.
Cooper said the university restricts student expression to a speech zone, the Bear Paw, a practice that violates the First Amendment because it limits speech to one area as well as the methods a person inside the area could use to speak.
The lawsuit describes the Bear Paw speech area as “approximately 60 feet by 50 feet in area,” in which “only a small portion of the students on campus can be accommodated by the Bear Paw at any given time.”
Black said the lawsuit mischaracterizes the size of the Bear Paw zone as well as the extent of restrictions that the university places on speech.
“We believe [the speech rules] are constitutional as stated in the policies,” he said. “There are a lot of other expressive activities that occur on [other areas of] campus.”
Column sparks hot protests
At Sierra College in Rocklin, Calif., a handful of students and a sociology professor called for editors and the adviser of The Outlook student newspaper to resign because of a column they said was sexist.
The Sierra College Outlook column, titled “One Person’s View: Sierra Girls Aren’t Really that ‘Hot,’” ran in the October issue of the newspaper and responded to a campus rumor that Sierra College was named one of the top five schools for attractive women by Playboy magazine.
In the column, Nicholas Louis wrote that women at the college were less attractive because they spent too much time worrying about their appearance.
“What makes a hot girl?” Louis wrote. “I believe that the most significant quality in a girl is an attractive personality. Let me be honest with you, I do find countless number of girls to be physically attractive, but personality-wise, I find the majority to be stuck up, bitchy and self-centered.”
Scott Suneson, a sociology instructor who led the protests against the newspaper, pointed to the use of words such as “bitchy” as well as the use of “girls” and “chicks” rather than women among his various objections to the column.
Since the initial protests, the protesters “were informed about the First Amendment,” said Erik Fritts-Davis, editor of The Outlook. “I figured that they had heard about it, but apparently they hadn’t.”
Suneson has since backed down from his calls for the adviser’s resignation, calling it “rhetorical overkill.” He did, however, continue to seek an apology from the newspaper.
“We don’t want faculty or staff to censor,” Suneson said, “but we want common sense.”
Fritts-Davis said the newspaper decided not to apologize because the columnist and newspaper were exercising their First Amendment rights.
Aftermath of censorship
Students and others involved in these incidents held differing opinions of what effects the censorship had.
Fritts-Davis, the editor at Sierra College, said the dialogue resulting from the student’s column benefited the college.
“It’s the cornerstone of American democracy that we’re able to say things that are unpopular,” he said.
Hampton University students and professors were divided on how the newspaper seizure and task force would impact the school.
Caldwell, the Hampton journalism professor, was optimistic that the newspaper would remain a strong part of the university.
“This university is on the early stages of building something that doesn’t exist in America,” he said, referring to its status as a historically black college. It has the opportunity “of building something that isn’t all white like everything else in journalism.”
Other members of the faculty were more skeptical.
“The way I see it, journalism is a tool for democracy, and if African American students can’t learn to use this tool at a black college, where else are they going to?” said Sean Lyons, assistant professor of journalism at Hampton.
Buford, the editor of the Hampton Script, said she hoped to put the tension from the incident behind her.
“Hopefully, they’ll better understand our role as journalists,” she said. “And hopefully there will be no hard feelings because this wasn’t personal.”
reports, Winter 2003-04