Southern Methodist pulls story about transparency from newspaper's orientation issue
Paper agreed to prior review in exchange for mailing list
TEXAS — Students and administrators at Southern Methodist University are at odds over the removal of an opinion piece from The Daily Campus, SMU’s student newspaper.
Dean of Student Life Lisa Webb informed the newspaper last week that a column addressing a lack of transparency on the school’s board of trustees was not fit for publication in the print edition.
Though The Daily Campus operates independently of SMU — receiving no funding from the school administration — this particular column was part of an orientation issue, mailed out to all incoming freshmen.
As part of a verbal agreement made in 2007, the student journalists are required to submit the edition to the administration for prior review. In exchange, the newspaper staff receives a list of mailing addresses for members of the incoming class.
Jessica Huseman, who is serving as summer editor in chief for The Daily Campus, said she was “shocked and disappointed by the decision.”
“It never even crossed my mind that we wouldn’t be able to run it,” said Huseman, who authored the column on board transparency. “Nixing an article about transparency is not only a poor decision, it’s an extremely ironic one.”
Huseman added that the newspaper has never been prevented from running a story in its orientation issue. She suspected that Webb’s decision was due to the fact that the column “spoke harshly about the school.”
In the mail-home edition, the newspaper staff compiled a series of lists addressing the “top 5 things to know before arriving at SMU.”
Along with lists like “top 5 classes for freshmen” and “top 5 SMU celebrations,” Huseman decided to include a list on the “top 5 issues at SMU.”
She said she made the decision “because we didn’t want students to get a distorted view of how the university operates.”
Upon reviewing the edition before it was sent out June 3, Webb said she determined Huseman’s column “was not germane to the overall content in the issue as a whole.”
“The column spoke to an audience, but it didn’t speak to new students,” Webb said. “If a story doesn’t hit our target audience, our agreement is that it won’t be published.”
Webb said she allowed the four other “issues” that made the top 5 list — including a column on the lack of international students at SMU and a column on the absence of campus unity and pride — to be published because they “fit in with the issue’s theme.”
“It’s always been clear that this issue is meant to be a collaboration between the students and Student Affairs, where we talk back and forth about the process,” she said.
Though Huseman accepted Webb’s decision with little protest, she soon decided to publish her column on the newspaper’s website.
Had the staff gone forward with publishing the column in the print edition, it would not have received mailing addresses from the administration, she said.
“We wanted to show the administration that they don’t have any power to control our online content,” Huseman said.
Huseman also wrote a blog post explaining the decision to publish online, arguing that “the student newspaper is not meant to be a public relations tool of the school or the board. It is meant to be a newspaper ... We would be cheating ourselves and our readers if we did not inform them of problems in order that they might be fixed in an appropriate and proactive way.”
Daily Campus adviser Jay Miller — who is on the payroll of the Student Media Company, which also operates independently of the administration — described the situation as a “non-issue.”
“The university has a right to control its mailing list,” he said. “It’s the administration’s prerogative to do that. I can’t put aside the agreement.”
Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, agreed.
While Goldstein acknowledged that the decision to remove the column was an instance of censorship, he explained that SMU was within its authority as a private institution.
“I don’t think it’s a terrible, un-journalistic thing to come to the middle with the administration this one time,” he said, adding that the student journalists are “free to walk away from the agreement whenever they want.”
And that’s exactly what might happen.
Huseman said there have already been discussions about possibly eliminating the orientation issue next year.
Ashley Withers, who serves as editor in chief during the regular academic year, said she hopes the 2007 agreement will be reexamined in the near future.
“Nobody who works for the newspaper now was at SMU when the agreement was made,” she said. “Some of those rules need to be reevaluated.”
Though Withers is away from campus for the summer, she said she fully supports Huseman’s decision to publish online.
Huseman said the online version of her column is currently the publication’s most read article of the summer.
Webb acknowledged that “whatever the students do outside of the first-year [print] guide is fully their decision.” She added that she “holds the student journalists in the highest regard.”
Chase Wade, the newspaper’s arts and entertainment editor, said Webb and the SMU administration were “not right to keep [the column] a secret.”
“I can’t say nobody saw this coming,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the students are being denied the basic right to be informed.”
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