Negotiated Freedom of the Press
The headline on the article in Saint Louis University’s student newspaper this month about a proposed takeover of the publication by administrators there could almost be seen as making the university's case for it. "SGA resolution to ‘preserve editorial independance’ [sic] of The University News," read the headline, misspelling and all.
Frequent errors, not merely in spelling and grammar but in substance as well, have undermined the weekly paper to the point that it embarrasses other student leaders and the institution, Saint Louis officials have argued. That, coupled with vaguely expressed concerns about The University News's financial situation, led the university’s administrators to rewrite the publication’s charter in a way that gives campus officials, not the student journalists themselves, the right to hire and fire editors, among other major changes.
The newspaper’s editors and faculty adviser, joined by journalism organizations around the country, characterized the university’s stated reasons for nixing the charter as a smokescreen. They accused administrators of proposing such an aggressive takeover of the publication because they had grown unhappy with its critical coverage. Only that, they said, could explain why the administration’s proposed new charter would have given university officials, for the first time, the right to hire and fire editors, and to do so, among other things, for publishing content that is “contrary to the mission and values of Saint Louis University.”
“The chapter believes [the] proposed change to the newspaper’s charter will stifle the publication’s editorial independence and freedom of expression on campus,” the St. Louis branch of the Society for Professional Journalists said this month.
Early this month, the university’s Board of Trustees approved administrators’ request to discontinue the newspaper’s original charter and approve the new one -- but only after a 10-day period in which administrators were urged to work with student editors on a possible compromise. And this week, after a series of meetings, Saint Louis officials released a revamped charter, which still gives a university administrator final say over the hiring and firing of editors, but only based on recommendations by the newspaper’s staff.
“From our standpoint, the administration believes that we have a charter that we are at a place where the freedom of The University News to handle editorial content is highlighted and made very clear, and by the same token, some financial and other oversight is in place to ensure that it’s as good an operation as it can be,” said Jeff Fowler, associate vice president for university marketing and communications.
“It’s not what I would’ve wanted, but I think we can live with it,” said Katie Lewis, who just finished her junior year at the Roman Catholic institution and is incoming editor of The University News.
Exactly what prompted university administrators to seek significant changes in how the student newspaper is governed is a matter of some debate.
Administrators said they had seen a sharp decline in the quality of the weekly publication, which is staffed by volunteers (the university has no journalism program) and overseen by an unofficial adviser. “There were more factual errors, opinion had worked its way into news stories, so that it was hard to tell opinion from news, and there were an issue or two where there were huge holes where there should have been copy,” said Fowler. Even other students increasingly complained about the paper’s quality, he said.
Fowler and other administrators also cited “some budgetary and financial issues that came to light that the university felt needed to be addressed,” but declined to go into detail. Efforts to discuss those problems with the paper’s editors and with the advisory board charged with overseeing the paper under the old charter went nowhere, Fowler said. “There was just no progress being made, and that’s what led us to conclude that the old charter simply wasn’t working.”
Current and former editors of the paper and its adviser, Avis Meyer, a communications professor at Saint Louis, challenged the administrators’ stated reasons for the change. The University News contained no more errors than any other student newspaper, and in fact regularly won awards from local and regional journalism groups. And the few examples of perceived financial problems administrators shared with the editors -- inadequate accounting of in-kind trades with advertisers, for example -- hardly amount to the flawed system Saint Louis administrators suggest, they say.
They offer another motive for the university’s actions: longstanding unhappiness among the university’s top administrators about the publication’s critical coverage of the institution. “They want control of the paper so they stop getting bad press, plain and simple,” said Meyer, a longtime reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He said the university’s president, the Rev. Lawrence J. Biondi, had previously tried several times to rewrite the newspaper’s charter or otherwise rein in its operations. “I understand this -- he doesn’t like bad news.” He and others cited a 2006 article about the help Father Biondi received from the Bush administration in escaping a hazardous situation in Beirut (while another Saint Louis priest stayed behind in Lebanon) as one such piece of "bad news" that angered administrators.
Fowler dismissed the idea that university officials had tried to restrict what the newspaper has published or to retract articles after the fact. “Do we like everything they publish? No. But have we tried to limit their ability to publish it? No.”
With discussions between administrators and the editors at a standstill, Saint Louis officials early this month sprung a proposed new charter on the newspaper’s staff. Early drafts of the charter had language that described the student press at the university as “free of censorship and advanced approval of content,” but also gave the vice president for student development, for the first time, a significant role in the hiring and firing of the newspaper’s editors.
The early drafts took the power to select the new editor in chief out of the hands of the newspaper's staff, and said that the vice president could fire editors for “misconduct or financial mismanagement,” but also that they could be removed for publishing material that was “libelous or otherwise contrary to the mission and values of Saint Louis University.” The new charter also gave the vice president sole power to dismiss the newspaper’s adviser “for failure to satisfactorily complete all assigned duties,” broad language that which troubled officials at College Media Advisers, a national organization.
“If I’m an adviser, that language is going to make me possibly get more involved in dictating content, cautioning me not to let certain things run out of fear that if it upsets the administration, my job is on the line,” said Lance Speere, president of the advisers’ group and publications director at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.
Taken together, Speere said, echoing the view of officials at several other national journalism groups, the language in the initial drafts of the new charter would have resulted in “very qualified” freedom of the press. He and other experts on press freedom acknowledge that private institutions like Saint Louis have broad authority to do what they wish with student publications, but still expressed concerns about the wisdom and fairness of such decisions.
A few days after Saint Louis officials presented the proposed new charter to University News editors, administrators sought and won approval from the university’s trustees to abandon the old charter. The trustees and administrators agreed that the university would not impose a new charter for 10 days, to provide for the possibility of further discussions with editors and other supporters of the paper.
Thursday, university officials unveiled a final version of the charter that had changed significantly. The vice president for student development would still have final approval over the selection of a new editor in chief, but would act on a recommendation from the newspaper's editorial leaders. The vice president would no longer be able to dismiss a student editor for financial mismanagement, and while the administrator would still have authority to dismiss a student editor for “misconduct,” he or she would now have to “explain the decision to [the newspaper’s] Advisory Board.”
The final charter would also leave it to the newspaper’s advisory board, rather than a university administrator, to determine whether content is so “contrary to the standards of professional journalistic ethics or conduct, or contrary to the mission and values of Saint Louis University,” such that it warrants his or her firing.
The charter also requires the vice president to consult with the newspaper’s student editorial board before firing the newspaper’s adviser.
Fowler, the university spokesman, said the changes “show the willingness on the administration’s part to work our way through this. There has been some compromise, probably on their side, too,” he said. Fowler said it was “never the intent” of Saint Louis officials to “go in and try to censor the newspaper, to say what stories they can or can’t cover,” adding: “It would be really silly on our part to have gone through all this and try to interfere on editorial content. It’s just not going to happen.”
Meyer, the adviser, acknowledged that the administration had "softened its rewrite substantially," but argued that the "rewrite was so harsh originally that the softening doesn't amount to much." He added: "The kids know that they don't have control to the extent that they used to."
Lewis, the incoming editor, said students were willing to give the new charter a go, noting that the paper will gain some additional administrative and other support as part of the arrangement. She said she was confident that Saint Louis officials mean what they’ve said about not wanting to interfere with or dictate the publication’s content – and vowed that the University News would continue to report critically when appropriate.
“That won’t stop -- it can’t stop,” said Lewis, the editor. “To be a free student voice, we have to do that. If we’re not critical; then we’re not doing our jobs.”