Trying not to forget: Keeping memories of censorship alive tough with constant newsroom turnover

It has been five years since Kansas State University administrators fired the adviser of the student newspaper, alleging it had not printed enough coverage of diversity events. It has been five years since Daily Collegian editors Katie Lane and Sarah Rice filed a suit against Kansas State claiming the Manhattan, Kan., school violated their First Amendment rights. It has been five years, and most journalists who edit and work in the Collegian newsroom these days do not even know it happened.

In the collective memory of an ever-changing college newsroom, five years is a long time.

"I was editor my last semester, and by that time there was just a handful ' less than 10 people ' who had been there at the same time," Rice said. "By the time I graduated there was barely anybody left that would even remember the initial incident."

Constant staff turnover may be a fact of life at student publications, but it puts student journalists at a disadvantage when facing censorship and other conflicts. In the Kansas State case, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2007 that Lane and Rice did not have standing as plaintiffs specifically because they were no longer students. In relying on graduation rather than the First Amendment, it was a high-profile conclusion that mirrored dozens of smaller student media conflicts that get swept into the cracks between semesters.

Mark Goodman, the Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism at Kent State University and former executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said it is important to recognize this as a weakness of student news organizations.

"Because you've got student editors who turn over every year, or in some cases every semester, you do have challenges that are not confronted by publications with staffs that remain for much longer," he said.

It was not until University of Northern Colorado Mirror Editor-in-Chief Christina Romero happened across court documents in her office filing cabinet last summer that she learned the details of lawsuits filed by former Mirror editors in 2004. But those editors had her and other future-editors in mind when they sued the student government for open meetings violations and the board of trustees for approving a 40 percent funding cut for the Mirror proposed by the student government.

The Mirror won both cases ' the resulting agreement means the newspaper now has a contract directly with the university for its funding, and Student Representative Council members have open meetings law training every year.

"We knew that the changes needed to happen and it needed to be a long-term solution, which is why that agreement was written the way it was," said Heath Urie, who was the incoming editor-in-chief when the lawsuits were filed.

Romero told section editors about the lawsuit, but she said it is not something she tells staff members unless they ask about it.

"The Mirror fought for its freedom in order to provide UNC the best information available, not to gloat about being right," she said in an e-mail.

Urie said he is glad to know the lawsuit still has an effect, though he understands the memory will fade as each year's editors leave their college years behind.

"I certainly hope they are remembering what happened when I was there and are able to apply the results of that lawsuit," he said. "But I think there's just that reality that we move on from those things."

It is a reality that challenges editors of the Daily Orange, the completely independent student newspaper at Syracuse University in Syracuse, N.Y. Former Editor-in-Chief Tito Bottitta has been gone for more than five years now, but some of his ideas to strengthen institutional memory are still in place.

Bottitta had only been top editor for a few weeks in the spring of 2002 when the newspaper published a cartoon, intended to depict a robber wearing a dark-colored ski mask, that some people at Syracuse saw as racist. A history of racially insensitive cartoons had earned the D.O. the nickname "Daily Oppressor" among some campus groups. One cartoon depicting the student body's black president led to protests on the Daily Orange's lawn the spring before Bottitta started at Syracuse.

"I remember being kind of shocked to learn, oh, that happened the semester before I got there. That happened within months of my setting foot on the campus," he said. "I think the paper was sort of ashamed of it, so it wasn't something they made a big a deal of or talked to the staff enough about."

Rather than hiding the paper's shameful moments, Bottitta created the "Don't Do This" wall near the editors' offices by posting mistakes and controversial content from the archives. Bottitta said the hope was that a young reporter walking by might stop and ask an older editor about it.

"We wanted people thinking about those things when they were making decisions, and thinking the way our readers may well be thinking," he said.

Bottitta also started the "D.O. Palooza" tradition, which brings D.O. alumni back to campus to lead seminars and tell stories from way back when. It is one opportunity to talk to current students about the lessons of the past, Bottitta said, though he no longer thinks preventing future conflicts is possible ' or beneficial.

"I still do think institutional memory is important," he said, "but I actually think the experience of going through it is just as invaluable."

The Daily Orange's independence means the staff is free to learn and relearn those lessons without fear of university interference, though it also leaves them without an adviser or permanent staff member to help pass on knowledge. The adviser serves as the font of institutional memory at many organizations, Goodman said, and that is what makes the Kansas State ruling so frightening: It suggests schools can get away with reassigning advisers for content-related issues.

In the wake of the Collegian adviser's dismissal, College Media Advisers censured Kansas State ' the advocacy organization's most drastic action against universities deemed hostile to student journalists and their advisers. This is one way to prevent the conflict from fading away and make sure something positive comes out it, said Kathy Lawrence, who was CMA president at the time Kansas State was censured and now chairs the group's Adviser Advocate Committee. When a conflict arises, CMA advocates try to work with the university to develop policies more supportive of student media.

"Those advisers have often by that time moved on, but what we hope to have in place is a structure that will protect future advisers and future students," Lawrence said.

Kansas State has worked hard to remove the censure ' rewriting student media bylaws, restructuring the board, gathering statements in support of student media and generally strengthening the organization, Kansas State Director of Student Publications Linda Putney said.

"Those are all very positive things, and we're glad we've been able to do this," she said. "But we've got bruises, too."

A CMA censure is all that remains of a standoff at Le Moyne College, also in Syracuse, after a longtime adviser was removed almost four years ago. The administration cited poor quality and grammar errors, but Dolphin editors suspected the decision not to renew Alan Fischler's contract in fall 2005 was in response to controversial content. In protest, they halted publication for more than a year.

"We were drastic from the beginning. We said we're going to halt publication and protest what you're doing," said Andrew Brenner, who was editor-in-chief at the time.

Finally, administrators commandeered the newspaper by disbanding the student group and reregistering it the following day with different students.

"The student newspaper that had been put in place as the Dolphin really just was press releases for the school. It wasn't a student newspaper," Brenner said.

Current co-managing editor Michael Bersani admits that the Dolphin his freshman year was more like a newsletter as the new Dolphin staff started from scratch.

"That first year was tough," he said. "You look back at the paper now and you sort of cringe a little bit."

Since then, Brenner and all the former Dolphin staff members have moved on, and Le Moyne has a new president, too. The alternative paper Brenner started, Lemocracy, still publishes, though much of its original passion left with its founder.

After working at the Dolphin since his freshman year and seeing the newspaper improve each year, Bersani said he plans to step down from the top role next year so no progress is lost in the transition to new editors.

"We're careful that once we graduate as seniors the paper doesn't fall flat on its face," he said.

Shawn Ward, vice president for student development at Le Moyne, said the college would certainly like to get the censure taken away, but it is not easily done. He said the last time Le Moyne reached out to CMA they were told the censure would not be removed unless Fischler was reinstated as adviser, so there have not been efforts recently.

But students working at the Dolphin now are satisfied and the newspaper is prospering, Ward said, so the censure no longer accurately represents student media at the college.

"It reflects an incident that occurred historically," Ward said, "but looking at the contemporary situation and looking forward, it doesn't reflect what we're doing or where we're going."

It is still a painful memory for Fischler, who said it has not been the same teaching at Le Moyne since then. He has rarely looked at a copy of the Dolphin since it resumed publishing. Brenner, too, said the conflict left a stain on his college years and might have influenced his decisions to pursue public policy in graduate school rather than journalism.

"It's true colleges can just wait students out. At the end of the day they have far more power than students ever would, especially at a private school," Brenner said. "That being said, though, I don't think students should just give in."

At Kansas State, the ongoing lawsuit was still a cloud hanging over the newsroom when Collegian Editor-in-Chief Sheila Ellis started reporting as a freshman in 2005, the fall after Rice graduated. Ellis was routinely assigned to cover the Black Student Union and events she said might not have been covered in past years.

"I noticed I was getting a lot of the BSU stories ' a lot of the stories they weren't covering in the past," she said. "And ironically I was the only black reporter."

Tired of getting pigeonholed for the "black beat," Ellis quit reporting. She was approached by administrators about starting a separate publication for minority students, but Ellis said that seemed like running away from the problem instead of fixing it. The lack of diversity coverage was an ongoing problem at the Collegian long before the conflicts that led to the lawsuit, Ellis said. During her sophomore year, she discovered an old Kansas State alternative newspaper printed by black journalists for two decades.

"They felt like they needed to do something because the student newspaper didn't have any of their viewpoints in it," Ellis said.

Determined to finally overcome that history, Ellis started a group for minority students pursuing media careers, and brought along a diverse group of reporters when she returned to the Collegian.

These days most staff members have no knowledge of the former editors' lawsuit, Ellis said. CMA plans to remove the censure against Kansas State soon, and the Collegian journalists have moved on.

"It's not really something that we talk about very much because it's really not relevant anymore to us," Ellis said. "Most of our staff writers and reporters have no idea, or have no knowledge of what happened because it doesn't really affect us."

Former adviser Ron Johnson, who worked at Kansas State for 19 years before moving to Indiana University as the director of student media, said the implications of the court case should worry student journalists. He said the real test at Kansas State will not come until the Collegian is again confronted about its content ' maybe not this semester or the next, but someday.

Rice said it is a shame current and future Collegian staff members will not feel connected to the paper's alumni the way she did when letters and support poured in from past editors during the lawsuit.

"We felt like we were part of a bigger organization just because we had all that support from people who had been there before," Rice said. "I feel bad that those at the Collegian now probably won't have that."

reports, Spring 2009