Award recognizes Calif. editors' bravery
The Sun continued to publish after administration attempted to thwart production
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, executive director 703.807.1904 / firstname.lastname@example.org
The editors and staff of The Sun at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, CA., who endured threats and harassment from their administration in an attempt to keep them from publishing, are the recipients of this year’s College Press Freedom Award.
The annual award is sponsored by the Student Press Law Center and the Associated Collegiate Press to honor an individual or group that has demonstrated courage in advancing free-press rights for college journalists. The award will be presented at the National College Journalism Convention, Oct. 26-29 in Orlando, organized by the ACP and by College Media Advisers.
This year, for the first time, the award will be underwritten by a grant from the Louisiana State University Manship School of Communications, and given in memory of “The Reveille Seven,” a group of LSU student journalists who, in 1934, were expelled for publishing criticism of Louisiana Gov. Huey Long.
Controversy at The Sun came to a head in September 2010, when Southwestern College administrators ordered the paper to cease printing until after a fiercely contested election in which three members of the college’s Board of Governors were up for re-election. The order purportedly was based on a technicality that the paper’s printing contract had not been approved by the board, but the technicality had never before been enforced.
According to a resolution enacted by The Sun’s editorial board, the printing shutdown was part of a series of attacks on the paper by then-President Raj Chopra’s administration that also included: reducing the pay of editorial adviser Max Branscomb, hiring a lawyer to investigate Branscomb, spending $50,000 on an audit of the publication, and ordering campus police to detain Sun staffers who were taking computers to be recycled on a bogus "theft” charge. Chopra resigned in November 2010.
SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte said The Sun ‘s student staff and adviser “endured a pattern of escalating attacks that culminated in temporarily shutting down their paper in a naked attempt to suppress coverage of a closely contested board of trustees election.
“The administrators of Southwestern College threw everything they had at these journalists, even threatening them with a trumped-up criminal investigation, and through it all, the journalists kept on doing exactly what journalists are supposed to do: Pursue the story, wherever it led. Their reporting exposed gross mismanagement at the college, including the deliberate wasteful spending of millions of dollars to conceal how badly the school had missed its budget estimates,” LoMonte said.
After The Sun was told it could not publish, it contacted the SPLC for assistance, said Albert Fulcher, the current editor in chief, who was on staff during the fall 2010 controversy. “When the SPLC stepped in with letters and phone calls to the Southwestern College district, it immediately gave us permission to print and brought our struggle into national limelight. But more than that, it was the many personal conversations that we students had with the SPLC that gave us the tools to win the fight.”
The Sun quickly received community support and raised enough funds through private donations and sponsorships to pay for the printing of three editions of the newspaper on its own. Eventually, as a result of pressure from the SPLC and the community, the governing board enacted a new policy that Fulcher said is a “superior model to protect any student journalism program in the nation.”
Dave Waddell, editorial adviser to The Orion at Chico State University, nominated The Sun for the College Press Freedom Award, saying that the paper deserved recognition “for its courageous defense of a free press against what I would characterize as a corrupt administration seeking desperately, arrogantly and ruthlessly to silence the student newspaper. But they failed. They failed because The Sun would not be intimidated. ... I admire them for standing up to the attack and for winning this battle.”
Journalism professor and Sun adviser Branscomb said he and his staff are honored to be selected.
“The students and faculty of the Southwestern College Sun are very grateful for the support and wisdom of the Student Press Law Center during what was our darkest hour,” he said. “What happened at Southwestern College last fall was the worst fear of journalists and Americans who cherish our precious free speech rights. I am so proud of my students, who showed great courage, integrity and resolve during the crisis.”
Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship. The Center provides free information and educational materials for student journalists and their teachers on a wide variety of legal topics on its website at www.splc.org.