Don’t Mess With Free Speech

Instead of censoring student journalists, learn to work together. 

July 22, 2015

It’s nonsensical to me: Institutions that attempt to thwart the efforts of student journalists by refusing to participate in their stories, attempting to silence them and generally promoting hostile relations. Yet, it recurs so often and almost always backfires on the administration.

Take this recent example from Muscatine Community College in Iowa, where things have escalated all the way to the courthouse. In May, student reporters sued the former college president, dean, other administrators and the board for censorship and intimidation. As you would expect, the tension between the paper and the administration seemed to be triggered by an investigation into conflict of interest claims that had the potential to portray the college in a negative light. But the conflict was exacerbated by a single faculty member’s photo—a headshot—that ran along with the announcement of a grant the professor has received. This should have been a good thing—a celebration of faculty scholarship— except the faculty member didn’t want his picture used alongside the piece. And it became a big deal, ultimately leading to a legal battle, which has received far greater media attention than any of the stories the administration originally had concerns about. I don’t need to point out the irony here.

The scary thing is that Muscatine isn’t alone. Remember Pensacola Community College? Last fall, they became national news when the administration attempted to institute a gag order related to a labor dispute. Then there’s Northern Michigan University, which also made headlines across the country when the student newspaper’s editor and advisor sued the administration for alleged retaliation after they published a critical story. Chicago State University has been at odds with their independent student newspaper for years and has been involved in multiple legal battles, including at least one that was deemed a First Amendment violation on the part of the administration. Similar issues have plagued George Washington University and the University of Minnesota, as detailed in this article about university “PR staff increasingly limiting access to sources.” And, from what I hear from colleagues across the country, relationships are strained at so many other institutions as well.

It’s unfortunate, to say the least. A missed opportunity. An overlooked chance for both sides to have a win.   

Kyle Munson, a columnist with the Des Moines Register, who opined last week about the Muscatine incident, summed it up beautifully. He wrote, “Let me conduct a quick Higher Ed Marketing 101 session in two sentences: Open, unrestricted student journalism under the tutelage of dedicated faculty is some of the best public relations you can produce and will only help you avoid headaches in the long run. The best way to thwart a ‘bad’ story is with more stories, not stonewalling.”

I couldn’t agree more.

I have always viewed student newspaper staffs as allies. And treating them as such paid extraordinary dividends. I cultivate relationships in the exact same way I approach other members of the media—a strategy corroborated by my colleague Erin Hennessy in a blog post written earlier this year.

So, what does partnering with student media look like when done well? It looks like your interactions with other reporters. It’s about providing students access to administrators and faculty. It’s about facilitating interviews for mundane as well as more sensitive, stories. It’s about being available as a resource to provide context and background. It’s about giving student reporters a heads-up on major institutional announcements and news, including potentially negative news. It means giving students embargoed information (in certain circumstances). Terrifying for some of us, but potentially hugely rewarding.

It means regular, casual meetings with editors and reporters over coffee or lunch, as well as special occasion meetings. (Throw the newspaper staff an end-of-year ice cream party, for example.) It means sending an email about a job well done, a story well reported—especially if they’ve handled a negative story about the institution in a particularly fair and sensitive way. It means protecting students from overstepping and from potentially libelous reporting. Yes, you’re treating them like professional journalists, but you’re also operating in an educational setting as a mentor looking out for their interests. And mentorship needs to be genuine to work. It can’t protect anyone else’s agenda.

Student journalists aren’t perfect. They’re less experienced. They’re still learning the process. But I know that even the most ambitious among them aren’t out to get the administration. They want to put out a good newspaper. And it’s our responsibility to help them do that, keeping in mind that good reporting doesn’t always mean that the stories that end up in print are the ones we want told. Even the most negative stories benefit from a good relationship with the reporter.

And you may get burned. That’s the risk of engaging with any media, right? The reality is, with student journalists and most other things in life, you catch more flies with honey (or ice cream) than vinegar. 


Back to Top