Private California university requests takedown of student news article





CALIFORNIA—The Santa Clara, Santa Clara University’s namesake student newspaper, published an editorial detailing a recent incident of the publication’s censorship by the school’s administration. The story was picked up by the Mercury News and many have since weighed in, including some of the aforementioned administrators who maintain that the university’s actions do not qualify as censorship.

As reported in the Feb.16 editorial “Censored But Not Silenced,” The Santa Clara published an article on Feb. 2 online and in print about a $100 million gift (the largest in the school’s history) towards a new STEM facility by philanthropic alumni John and Susan Sobrato. The paper had sent a reporter to the Sobrato Organization’s Jan. 24 press conference in Cupertino following an announcement of the gift at the university’s annual Golden Circle fundraising gala on Jan. 21.

A week later, on Feb. 9, Sophie Mattson, editor-in-chief of The Santa Clara, received a call from Santa Clara University’s Vice Provost for Student Life & Dean of Students Jeanne Rosenberger requesting that she remove the article from the paper’s website. Just the day before, the university’s Twitter account had retweeted the newspaper’s release of the article.

Mattson said her first concern was that perhaps a source had been misrepresented in the article, but since Rosenberger would not give her a reason about why the university wanted the article removed, she decided to keep it up for the time being.

“She was asking me to remove the article from the website and I asked her why and she wouldn't tell me why and she said, 'I need you to speak with John Ottoboni, the university's general counsel, if you want to find that out,’” Mattson said. “So I said 'Okay I'm not going to take the article down. I'm not going to even consider taking it down unless I first found out why you want me to take it down.’”

Mattson set up a meeting with Ottoboni and her news editor, Jenni Sigl, for the next day. In the meantime, she set Sigl to work checking over the audio recording of the press conference and email correspondences of comments for the article.

“After the university initially reached out to us, we double checked the article, we went through the recording and reporting and after doing that, we were confident that whatever concern they might have about the article couldn't be in regard to inaccuracy or misquoting,” Sigl said. “We were confident after checking through things that we had done our due-diligence. So we went into that meeting with that understanding.”

Ottoboni requested that the meeting be off the record, along with a subsequent one including Rosenberger on Feb. 13. After hearing the administration’s reasoning and insistence that the article be taken down, Mattson spoke with some trusted professors in the communications department and agreed to a compromise where the parts of the article that administrators cited as problematic (amounting to three paragraphs) would be redacted.

The portion concerned a comment made by John Sobrato about Santa Clara’s dean of engineering, Godfrey Mungal, and Mungal’s comment in response. It read:

Sobrato also expressed interest in having a new dean to match the new building.

“Frankly we have to have a new dean that’s more connected in the high­tech community. And I don’t want to throw stones at Godfrey (Mungal), but ... we need somebody that’s a modern, high­tech entrepreneur. I’d love to see some retired executive who would like to run a school. That’s what we need to find to make this project really sing.”

When asked for comment about Sobrato’s remarks, Mungal said in an email that the School of Engineering has used connections in Silicon Valley to raise the stature of the school in U.S. News and World Report’s ranking from from 21st to 12th. He also said that engineering students make up 18 percent of the student body, up from a previous 12 percent of students.

He did not directly address Sobrato’s comment about him.

A notice of redaction was placed at the top of the article and linked to the editorial, crediting the content removal as an obligation to the school as the paper’s publisher. The editorial recognizes that this obligation stands in contrast to “a longstanding, explicit understanding between the university administration and The Santa Clara regarding editorial control,” and understanding that The Santa Clara is “an autonomous, independent, student-run news organization with minimal oversight from staff and faculty.”

To that end, legal precedent supports the students’ assertion. Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said, “There is absolutely zero legal authority for the notion that a university is the publisher of a student newspaper and in fact every court that has been asked the question has ruled to the contrary.”

He goes on to explain that, because students decide when and how often a paper is distributed, they meet the textbook definition of “publisher.”

“If the university were the publisher – if this were an official publication created and distributed for the university's benefit – then they would not let students decide whether it continues to exist.”

The Santa Clara’s editorial argues the university’s interference constitutes a dangerous precedent of the administration controlling the paper.

“Allowing the administration to have unfiltered editorial control over our publication is a slippery slope,” it reads. “At a time in which the administration has been criticized for lack of transparency and its inability to communicate with students about pressing campus issues in a timely manner, we have renewed our commitment to serving the public interest. Pressuring our staff to remove sections of the article in question runs contrary to that commitment.”

For his part, Sobrato has not commented for the record about the concerned content, deferring instead to university spokespeople who maintain he did not mean anything derogatory.

Ottoboni, on the other hand, justified the removal of content telling Mercury News that it was “extraneous” to the story of Sobrato’s gift. In a later comment emailed to the SPLC, he asserted that the actions of the administration were not censorship.

“We do not view this as an act of censorship, but rather one of compassion,” Ottoboni wrote. “The University made a request of the newspaper to remove a small portion of a news article because it could possibly cause unwarranted harm to a reputation of a member of our academic community. Thus, it was compassion – not censorship – that was the driving force in our request.”

Compassion or censorship, LoMonte reiterates that the paper’s legal rights are clear.

“These editors have been badly misinformed about the role of the university and they should know that California law gives them every right to refuse to obey orders infringing their press freedom without fear of punishment,” LoMonte said.

Under Sec. 94367 of the state of California’s educational code, known as the “Leonard Law,” both public and private universities and high schools must grant free speech protections to their students.

The law states that, “No private postsecondary educational institution shall make or enforce any rule subjecting any student to disciplinary sanctions solely on the basis of conduct that is speech or other communication that, when engaged in outside the campus or facility of a private postsecondary institution, is protected from governmental restriction by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution or Section 2 of Article 1 of the California Constitution.”

The law does not apply to schools with religious affiliation such as Santa Clara in cases where its application “would not be consistent with the religious tenets of the organization.”

Mattson and Sigl maintain that the actions of the administration present disturbing implications for the paper even though the compromise was agreed to without any explicit threat, like removal of funding.

Sigl said, “We were definitely considering the implications though and we wanted to be conscious of that because we receive a large amount of university funding and so we rely on that. In order to continue our operation we need that funding so we definitely took that into consideration.”

“Certainly, we weren't receiving explicit threats to our funding over this from them, but we had that in mind because we understand the relationship between a publisher and news organization and so we were conscious of that.”

Mattson noted that the paper receives just under $70,000 a year in university support as well as the use of university facilities to conduct production.

“We value the funding and the help we get from them with regards to that, but at the same time, it was very surprising to me that for the first time in my four years at the newspaper, they were stepping in to try and control editorial content,” Mattson said. “I only complied with the demand because it was our publisher and they're able to do that even though it's not something publishers typically do, exercise editorial control.”

She added that this was only the second time in about 20 years that the university had used such power. The last time they had done so it was with concern of affecting the outcome of a court case, which Mattson thought made more sense.

“This had already been published for a week and the part they were upset about was only a little part of the article it wasn't like the whole article was about it,” she said. “It was a little snippet of the article that they were upset about. That's just really alarming to me.”

SPLC staff writer Molly Cooke can be reached by email or (202) 785-5451.

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