Since 1974 the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) has been the nation’s only legal assistance agency devoted exclusively to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment and supporting the student news media in their struggle to cover important issues free from censorship. The SPLC provides free legal advice and information as well as low-cost educational materials for student journalists on a wide variety of topics. In addition, the SPLC operates an Attorney Referral Network of approximately 150 lawyers across the country who are available to provide free legal representation to local students when necessary. Approximately 2,500 student journalists, teachers and others contact the SPLC each year from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Its reports and blog posts are an indispensable source of information about student academic freedom.
Over the years most of SPLC’s attention has been paid, not surprisingly, to high school rather than college or university media, since the independence of high school student journalism has generally been far more fragile and contested than in higher education. But maybe that’s changing. Yesterday SPLC published its list of the ten top student press stories of 2015, and 5 of the 10 stories involved college or university media.
In addition, one story, which SPLC rated #1, affected both high school and higher ed media. That story involves the passage in April by North Dakota of the John Wall New Voices Act, which ensures the free-speech rights of student journalists in public schools and colleges. According to SPLC, this “made North Dakota the eighth state to pass legislation reinforcing students’ right to free speech and sparked a nationwide movement to pass similar legislation across the country. There are 19 state campaigns so far, and about a half dozen have concrete plans to introduce legislation in 2016. New Jersey was the first state with North Dakota-inspired legislation filed that will grant students an extra degree of protection from administrative censorship and also explicitly protect student publication advisers from retaliation.”
Here are the top SPLC stories involving college or university media:
2. Student journalists denied access to covering campus protests
In November, two student photojournalists were barred from attempting to photograph a campus protest at the University of Missouri by students and faculty members. One of the photojournalists, Mark Schierbecker, captured the entire exchange on video, which instantly went viral and sparked a nationwide debate about free press versus safe spaces for protesters. As college students across the country began to protest racism on campus, many adopted a no-media stance. Still, as the Student Press Law Center wrote in a new guide to documenting protests and demonstrations, there is no “right not to be photographed” in a public space. Meanwhile, the faculty members who blocked the photojournalists from taking photos — particularly communications professor Melissa Click, who called for “muscle” to remove Schierbecker — faced intense public criticism and condemnation, with Title IX complaints filed against them.
3. Shining a light on private universities’ police records
In most states, private universities’ police departments can shield records from the public, despite having the power to make arrests and use force. In May, however, the Texas legislature unanimously passed a law that requires private university police forces to release certain records to the public. The Ohio Supreme Court also ruled in favor of a former student journalist, determining that police departments at private universities are public entities and must release records to the public. A similar legal challenge in Indiana is pending before the state Court of Appeals — ESPN had sued to open the University of Notre Dame’s police records. The district court ruled in favor of the university, but in August, the state attorney general filed a brief with the appeals court in support of ESPN.
The next two stories have direct implications for faculty, as they involve removal of faculty advisers, an increasingly common and dangerous response of some administrators to alleged problems with student journalism, which threatens the broader academic freedom of both students and faculty:
4. A school’s journalism program eliminated
In April, the journalism program at Delta State University in Mississippi was eliminated in a unanimous vote following a discussion that lasted less than 10 minutes. The university also cut the funding for the student newspaper’s print production and rejected overtures from private donors to make up the funding and keep the Delta Statement in print. The cuts were part of a $1 million university-wide budget cut, but Patricia Roberts, the student newspaper’s adviser and sole journalism professor who lost her job in the cuts, argued that the move was retaliatory. The university president had announced the elimination of the journalism program immediately following a student reporter’s phone call seeking comment about an embarrassing lawsuit against the president. Roberts died in December following a battle with ovarian cancer. She had appealed her termination to the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees, but the board never acted on the appeal.
9. Student journalists’ discovery of toxic mold showcases toxic culture at Fairmont State
Student journalists at Fairmont State University in West Virginia won the 2015 College Press Freedom Award for standing up against institutional censorship and retaliation, including the removal of their faculty adviser, after their reporting for The Columns exposed toxic black mold in campus housing. The adviser, Michael Kelley, filed a grievance in June against the university in response to his dismissal, which is still pending. The student journalists also claimed that one administrator in particular, Robert Baker, threatened and intimidated the students after they published the articles on the mold. Baker was removed from his supervisory position for the Columns in July. In September, the three editors of The Columnsresigned in protest after administrators told them they would probably not be retained in an effort to move the newspaper’s coverage toward a “more positive direction.” The editors launched an independent watchdog news site, called “The Broken Column.” (Read the SPLC’s Report magazine story on the “culture of intimidation” at Fairmont State.)
10. Diversity efforts were at odds with free press values at Wesleyan
Perhaps the college journalism news story that got the most attention in 2015 was centered around the Wesleyan University’s Argus newspaper. In September, a columnist criticized the Black Lives Matter movement, which set off a firestorm on campus — about 500 copies of the newspaper were trashed in protest and students launched a petition to defund the Argus unless the paper met demands for more diversity efforts. The student government unanimously passed a resolution proposing to cut $17,000 from the Argus’ printing budget of about $30,000. That money will be used to create 20 paid positions at various student publications in an effort to add more diversity to the staff. The cut hasn’t been implemented yet, as a working group of student leaders will first examine the best ways to carry it out.
The campus debate, which quickly garnered national attention, sparked a larger conversation about the lack of diversity in student media and how that can negatively affect college journalism’s reporting on race.
The 1967 Joint Statement on Rights and Freedom of Students, drafted by the AAUP, U. S. National Student Association, Association of American Colleges, National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, and National Association of Women Deans and Counselors, and approved by the AAUP Council in October, 1967 declares:
Student publications and the student press are a valuable aid in establishing and maintaining an atmosphere of free and responsible discussion and of intellectual exploration on the campus. They are a means of bringing student concerns to the attention of the faculty and the institutional authorities and of formulating student opinion on various issues on the campus and in the world at large.
. . . . In the delegation of editorial responsibility to students the institution must provide sufficient editorial freedom and financial autonomy for the student publications to maintain their integrity of purpose as vehicles for free inquiry and free expressionin an academic community. . . .
As safeguards for the editorial freedom of student publications the following provisions are necessary:
1. The student press should be free of censorship and advance approval of copy, and its editors and managers should be free to develop their own editorial policies and news coverage.
2. Editors and managers of student publications should be protected from arbitrary suspension and removal because of student, faculty, administrative, or public disapproval of editorial policy or content. Only for proper and stated causes should editors and managers be subject to removal and then by orderly and prescribed procedures. The agency responsible for the appointment of editors and managers should be the agency responsible for their removal.
3. All university published and financed student publications should explicitly state on the editorial page that the opinions there expressed are not necessarily those of the college, university, or student body.
These principles not only remain relevant today, but it is clear from SPLC’s coverage that their enforcement is even more essential to the preservation not only of student rights and freedoms but of academic freedom more broadly.