Two Thumbs UP: Ensuring freedom to all





The freedom of expression torch once carried by former editors at the Daily Tar Heel was passed to a new editor to ensure that the legacy of the 2005 freedom of expression agreement remains at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But after a new chancellor was named in 2008, the agreement had to be signed again.

Allison Nichols, editor in chief, was a freshman when two former UNC editors approached then-Chancellor James Moeser for his signature on a freedom of expression agreement. It was 2005 when the agreement became an idea after the federal appeals court case Hosty v. Carter challenged the idea of freedom of the press on college campuses in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.

Hosty v. Carter delivered bad news to the student newspaper at Governors State University in University Park, Ill., after it allowed the college to censor the student newspaper. Margaret Hosty and two other student reporters sued the dean after she stopped the publication of the Innovator, the student newspaper, because the staff refused to submit articles for prior review. However, a federal appeals court in Hosty v. Carter applied Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier — in which the Supreme Court decided that public high school newspapers, not established as public forums, are subject to lesser First Amendment protection — to the college level for the first time.

Although the ruling only applied to the Seventh Circuit, former Daily Tar Heel Editor in Chief Ryan Tuck sought an agreement with Moeser out of fear that campus publications at UNC may be censored. It was signed in 2005.

While remembering what the former editor did, Nichols said the process to have the agreement was easy because the chancellor was willing to cooperate with the newspaper.

Mike Hiestand, legal consultant at the Student Press Law Center, said that the idea that the independent student press can bring about change remains strong.

“The agreement shows a commitment to the idea that student free speech on American college and university campuses is an essential ingredient to a robust learning environment,” he said. “The biggest drawback to the agreement is the fact there has to be an agreement, but a little preventative medicine — in the form of a free expression agreement — never hurts.”

Although Nichols, a senior, was a freshman at the time, she understood why the editors before her were proactive in ensuring the Daily Tar Heel’s right to freedom of expression and the press. In 2008, UNC appointed a new chancellor, which meant that the freedom of expression agreement needed renewal with a new signature.

Chancellor Holden Thorp signed the agreement on Aug. 13 solidifying the Daily Tar Heel and UNC student publications’ freedom of expression. However, he amended the original version to pertain only to “exclusively” student-edited publications. The agreement now states, “As chancellor of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I, Holden Thorp, support the editorial independence and press freedom of all exclusively student-edited campus media.” The agreement allows for the students to work freely at the university-level without fear of being censored.

The Daily Tar Heel is the only independent publication on campus free of student fees. The other dozen or so publications are not.

“We feel like we have to advocate for all of our peers,” Nichols said.

The agreement that Nichols kept alive protects all student media, including the Daily Tar Heel, even though it has been independent since 1929.

Gene Policinski, vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, said when a university signs such an agreement it is valuable on many levels.

“It provides for some additional legal protection from censorship,” he said. “It is a statement to the broader college community that that institution supports freedom of expression and free press.”

The Daily Tar Heel’s request for a speech agreement is not common on most campuses. Policinski said he wished more universities, public and private, would have such agreements or statements about their policy.

Nichols said Thorp has been open and accessible to the Daily Tar Heel and that he has demonstrated a commitment to working with the newspaper. The agreement, however, is not one sided; the Daily Tar Heel and the university are in good relations.

Erica Perel, adviser and former editor, said the paper has not had a problem with the university censoring the paper in the past.

“The Daily Tar Heel, since it is an independent newspaper, the agreement doesn’t change a whole lot,” she said. “It is good to know the chancellor believes in the mission of our newspaper, that it is student-produced and a teaching newspaper.”

Perel said that learning is an important part of student newspapers, and even though mistakes may occur, Chancellor Thorp believes in the newspaper’s teaching mission and does not wish to censor the content. Her advice to students who want to have a freedom of expression agreement should point out how journalism enhances education and is beneficial for college.

“College should be a loci of free inquiry and free expression,” said David Hudson, author and scholar at the First Amendment Center.

Although UNC officials signed an agreement to freedom of expression, the newspaper continues facing issues that student media commonly confront. In October, the Board of Elections closed its doors to student reporters during a meeting. The Daily Tar Heel argued that the group could only declare a closed meeting after giving nine specific reasons why the meeting should be closed. However, the board only cited one. Because of this, the Daily Tar Heel published articles regarding the incident and spoke with the chancellor.

Even though the Daily Tar Heel is not completely free from journalistic problems, the freedom of expression agreement and its financial stability without university funds has kept the newspaper from being censored.

Nichols said that becoming financially independent as well as having a good relationship with administrators are the best ways to ward off censorship.


reports, Winter 2008-09