College officials trash student publications

Censorship occurred te same day prospective or incoming students were touring campuses

School officials in April confiscated student newspapers on two campuses because they did not want prospective students and visitors to campus reading articles the publications printed.

An administrator at La Roche College, a private, Catholic school in Pittsburgh, trashed almost 900 copies of a student newspaper on campus, according to the newspaper's editor.

Copies of the La Roche Courier were distributed on April 14 and confiscated by college president Monsignor William Kerr three days later -- the same day prospective students and their parents toured the college during an open house.Kerr apparently confiscated the newspapers because of an editorial in the newspaper that advocated teaching students about safe sex, said Nicole Johnson, a student editor of the newspaper.

The college president told Johnson that he took the newspapers because he had to "consider the reputation of the institution."

The editorial, which was written by Johnson, criticized the college for informing students on where to drop off their unwanted babies, but not advocating enough about preventing an unwanted pregnancy.

"I understand that parents often contest to the college offering condoms to students, but it's time for the college to take a moral stand," the editorial stated.

Johnson said she was disappointed by the incident, but said because La Roche College is a private institution, university administrators may have the right to make that decision.However, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said in a 1981 decision that under the protections of the state constitution, even private schools may be limited in the ability to censor.

"There was a lack of respect for education in the decision made," Johnson said. "I don't see any reflection of the Catholic values as far as in the decision that was made. I think it's disgraceful."

After a reporter for the Courier wrote a story about the incident, the faculty advisory board to the newspaper and the administration agreed to allow the newspaper staff to establish editorial guidelines by the fall.

Paul McMasters, an ombudsman for the Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan foundation dedicated to free speech, said when newspapers are removed because of guests to campus, it is a violation of both the letter and spirit of the First Amendment.

When school administrators confiscate newspapers just to avoid any bad publicity, they are telling visitors that their campus is not open to the full exercise of free expression, he said.

"In most instances, it appears that most officials are interested in their image when they do something like this," McMasters said. 'They're trying to present the image of a campus that has no conflict or controversy. Not only is that dishonest, it's counterproductive -- and such actions don't go unpublicized."

McMasters said administrators try to only present only a positive image all too often on both public and private campuses.

"As a matter of fact, it appears to be part of a strategy by student groups to bring attention to their causes or issue, and by university officials to censor or regulate expression," McMasters said.

At the University of Missouri at Kansas City, a university employee removed 450 copies of the University News, a student newspaper at the public school, because he did not want incoming students to see copies of the newspaper.

The newspaper reported that James F. Byland, a building operations coordinator at a university recreation center, removed newspapers from the building, according to an article published by the student newspaper. Byland also unplugged the newsstand, which has a scrolling marquee, because he did not want students to see a front page article that discussed sexual activity taking place in the men's locker room sauna in the student recreational center, the newspaper reported.

The newspapers were removed during freshman orientation when university officials were conducting tours of the university.

"The stealing, destruction or confiscation of student publications to wash speech [that administrators] don't like overwhelms the message that they had hoped to send," McMasters said. "It doesn't do good to just preach the First Amendment, it has to modeled by college officials, too."

Pat Long, vice chancellor of the university, told the newspaper she was "unaware of the decision by employees of [the recreational center] to remove the papers." 

She also said it is "not the policy of the university to censor the student newspaper and neither she nor other administrators provided input to the decision."

Some of the newspapers were returned to the distribution rack, but newspaper staff members do not know why all of the newspapers were not returned.

"Too many college officials think that by suppressing speech that they're not comfortable with, bad publicity will follow," McMasters said. "The fact of the matter is that such actions never halt with confiscation of the newspapers."

Fall 2004, La Roche College, La Roche Courier, Missouri, Pennsylvania, reports, University News, University of Missouri at Kansas City