Finding the key to press rights

Student journalists attempt to unlock free speech at their private schools

If Andrew Seaman gets his way, he will be one of the last editors to run the Wilkes University student newspaper, The Beacon, without guaranteed freedom of the press. What makes this noteworthy is the fact Wilkes is a private university, and the school's president, Tim Gilmour, is not required by law to give such freedom to the student media.

The First Amendment protects the freedom of the student press at public colleges across the country, but private institutions operate under a different set of rules -- they are not under the same constitutional obligation to allow any type of speech or any freedom of the press on campus. With thousands of such private schools around the country, hundreds of thousands of students graduate each year from institutions that are not required to allow them rights to free speech on campus.

The creation of the policy at Wilkes, a Pennsylvania school, will mark a personal victory for Andrew Seaman, former editor-in-chief of The Beacon. The policy also demonstrates that free speech is possible on private campuses if students are willing to work and administrators are willing to listen.

Importance of free speech

It is a widely accepted fact that free speech is crucial on college campuses in order for students to get the most out of their educational experience.

The Supreme Court, in its 1972 Healy v. James ruling, said, "... the vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools."

Kevin Smith, president of the Society for Professional Journalists, said free speech rights are crucial on any campus, private or public, because campuses should be a breeding ground for ideas.

"If you go to a campus where free speech is limited or even tamped out altogether, you're being deprived of an important element of your education," Smith said. "That element is the ability to interact with different viewpoints and the exposure to different ideas."

He said not having an exposure to a wide range of ideas and points of view makes the college experience less desirable.

Wilkes University

Seaman said he said he hopes the success he has seen will motivate others to fight for similar rights at other private schools.

"The student media at Wilkes University will operate as designated public forums, and free from censorship and advance approval of content," the proposed policy at Wilkes says.

The policy also says the university is responsible for protecting the freedom of expression of students, so they may be best prepared to live as citizens in a democratic society.

"This isn't so much about Wilkes," Seaman said. "It's more about helping private school students around the country by showing that it's possible to get something like this passed at your school."

Seaman said students at Wilkes have been fortunate in the past because they have not had administrators recently try to censor student publications, but he realizes not all private schools are equal.

"Even if you don't have problems at your school now and you have an open, cooperative administration, it's important to get something like this passed to basically guarantee that support and cooperation for the staff and students to come," Seaman said.

How it is done

Free press rights require a few key ingredients in order to become a policy at a private institution. And, as Seaman found out, it is not always a quick or easy process.

First, he said it is important to be well connected with faculty members. He said in order for a person to make a change, they will have to work with staff members and administrators, all the way up to the president.

"I think it's important to make it like a sales pitch," Seaman said. "A lot of the people you'll deal with are in administration. They're in the business side of education, so they're going to be concerned about getting students to come to the school. They want it to be good for the administration."

Next, he said one of the most effective things students or advisers can do is make the idea appeal directly to the administrators by letting them know their signature will cause them to be remembered as advocates of the First Amendment.

Additionally, Seaman said administrators should be happy about granting free press rights because it places the burden of monitoring content and producing a quality paper on the students. "A selling point is that it actually takes some of the weight off of the administration if something [upsetting] were to be printed," Seaman said.

Tel Bailliet, director of student media and publications at Tulane University -- a private school with a free speech code -- said from an administrator's perspective it is important for students to focus on the educational opportunity and responsibility that comes with free speech on a private campus.

"Sell the responsibilities that come with those rights," Bailliet said. "The administration is also giving the students a list of what they expect -- the responsibilities they will fulfill."

She said it is imperative to have some kind of free speech practice in place at the school in order to prepare the students for what they will encounter once they enter the workforce.

"We always talk about the real world -- well, that is the real world. You have freedom of speech," Bailliet said. "And that's the world in which they're going to work and live. Don't shortchange [the students]."

If First Amendment rights are going to exist on any campus, private or public, the SPJ's Smith said it takes the active involvement of faculty and students who are passionate about the marketplace of ideas that should exist on campus.

Obstacles to freedomEven when a school does guarantee free press rights for students, defending them can still be a battle for those who want to exercise those rights. A free press policy, while beneficial, does not mean a school's media outlets are in the clear.

Private schools that do sign press freedom agreements often give varying levels of responsibility and freedom to the students. While many of them are close to guaranteeing complete First Amendment rights for student publications, they frequently include clauses that give administrators some restraint.

Tulane University, for example, has outlined extensively in its policy for student publications exactly what freedoms are granted to student media, and what rights are reserved for the administration.

"Tulane students and journalists may enjoy all the rights afforded by the First Amendment of the United States constitution with regard to the freedom of speech," Tulane's policy says. "However, these rights must not directly conflict with the educational mission of Tulane University."

Tulane's policy also states the school's administrators are the controlling authority of student publications. Notre Dame, a private school in Indiana, guarantees student journalists are "protected from arbitrary suspension and removal because of student, faculty, administrative or public disapproval of editorial policy or content."

The school's policy, however, contains guidelines on what types of advertising can go in the paper, and requires student media to carry a prominent statement informing readers the opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or student body.

From the administrator's perspective

In order to get the support of the administration behind a student free press policy, it is helpful to understand their perspective on the issue and potential hang-ups they may have. Private school administrators oftentimes have conflicting interests at play when it comes to granting rights to student publications.

Reynold Verret, provost at Wilkes University, has been involved in the discussions on adopting the new policy at Wilkes. He said while the school is fully in support of the policy, there are a number of considerations private schools must make before simply signing away freedoms to the student media.

"We strongly support freedom of speech rights for the student paper, but we also see we have to be careful because we are in the position of a publisher," Verret said. "If there were any case that were brought before a court, [Wilkes] could be held liable as the publisher of the paper."

Most private school administrators can appreciate the value of freedom of the student press, he said, but hesitate to grant complete freedom because they also have to protect the long-term interests of the university.

"We have certain liability exposure a state school does not," Verret said. "For example, if a person were libeled, the university would be exposed. I and some of my colleagues are skeptical whether [a policy] would provide any strong legal protection."

But Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said it is a common misunderstanding that colleges are legally liable for what students write in the student media.

"At the college level, it's pretty clear that a student newspaper is a platform for student views, like a podium or a bandstand that the school pays to construct. No one would seriously think the school is legally responsible for what a student says from a podium on the quad, even though the college paid for it," LoMonte said.

In fact, LoMonte said, the few liability suits against colleges over the content of student media come out exactly to the contrary -- the greater the school's intervention in the newsroom, the less likely it can disclaim responsibility for what is written.

Kathy Olson, associate professor of journalism at Lehigh University, another private university that does not restrict student speech, said she can see why it may not be easy for administrators.

"I understand the other side of the coin as well, that you want to be able to protect students," she said. "But these are university students. They need to be able to engage with people whose views they don't share and take that on in a responsible way."

While Lehigh University has no written code guaranteeing free speech to the students, Olson said the administrators know it is important for the students to be able to have, and what the students say on campus is not synonymous with the views of the school.

"I would tell administrators to really think twice about having your first move to squelch speech," Olson said. "It's always a better idea to open up the debate and ask 'what's the purpose of this?' It can be something that is really valuable for the campus, instead of becoming an 'us versus them' situation that you can't win in the end."

Bailliet said there are a number of reasons why private schools should consider free-speech codes important. She said, foremost, a code demonstrates the quality of education the school offers.

"I think that a school that is secure enough in its reputation, its education, and its students, is going to have freedom of speech for its students," Bailliet said. "I think a school that has a repressive policy or no policy protecting speech ... looks shaky. It doesn't look like a solid, well-founded, well rounded school."

She said schools that are very restrictive of the speech of their students are more concerned about their images than about the quality of education they are offering.

Pressing forward

Having a free press policy at a private institution is a great goal, but getting one signed is not the end of the road for those fighting for press freedom. A code will give students freedom in what they can do with publications, but maintaining that takes diligence and work.

As much as free speech agreements can help, Bailliet said, they are not perfect in guaranteeing student's rights to free expression on private campuses. "A policy is short of the absolutism and certainty that can be found in a law," she said. "No matter how good it is, it's still not law."

She said any policy is also a constant learning experience for administrators and students, because administrators often have a hard time seeing content they do not agree with being published. She said students will need to be prepared to work continuously for the policy to be effective.

"[A policy] is as good as the spirit of the people who put it in place," Bailliet said. "It's almost more of an education for administrators at the university than it is for the students. The students know the value of free speech. The administrators sometimes need some reminding."

Seaman said part of the problem is overcoming fear administrators often have about problems associated with free press.

"I think the thing people will come up against the most is that a lot of times the university president doesn't want anything to do with the newspaper," he said. "I think the toughest thing for students to overcome will be to find a way to convince [the administration] that a free press or a free media isn't something to be afraid of."

reports, Winter 2009-10