Clashing Over Content and Conduct

At 2 community colleges, student editors and administrators try to work out their differences, with mixed success.
June 20, 2005

Where the student press operates, conflict often ensues. It's practically unavoidable: Journalists see it as part of their mission to prod and provoke. Students, many of whom are young, occasionally make decisions they haven't fully thought through. And administrators tend to be fiercely protective of their institutions' reputations and images, sometimes to the point of over defensiveness. All in all a recipe for tension, at the least.

What matters most is how things are handled when conflict arises, and recent situations at two community colleges show the range of reactions that can result.

Students at Essex County College's Observer this month wound up spending $1,100 to print their annual graduation issue -- which they turned into a special “bill of rights” edition -- after campus officials sought to stop publication of the issue. The Observer’s editors charge that college officials were upset with the paper’s content. Administrators scoff at that charge, and say the newspaper would have been violating its own constitution by publishing without an adviser and without the prescribed minimum of three editors. 

Administrators and student journalists at North Carolina's Craven Community College, meanwhile, appear to have worked out their differences after months of tension over some racy content and potential changes in how the newspaper is administered. On the table at various points were the possibility of a panel of administrators making final decisions about what the paper should publish, an idea anathema to the students, and the newspaper being taken over by a for-profit publishing company.

But in the end, campus administrators and student editors reached a compromise that makes the paper independent, shields the college from liability, and appears to have satisfied both sides.

Craven Community College

It was a tough year for The Communicator, the several-year-old newspaper at Craven, in New Bern, N.C. In October, after an altercation on the campus, the newspaper prepared an article that, based on the police report, named the alleged student perpetrator and gave her address and age. When some of the newspaper's own staff members complained to administrators about intrusion into the student's privacy, Craven officials argued that there was "not much journalistic value in printing the address, when you balance it against [the student's] personal safety," says Sandy Wall, the college's community relations coordinator.

The newspaper's editor, Corey Friedman, challenged administrators' view that publishing the name and address would violate federal privacy laws, and went to press with the article that contained the student's name and address. But before the papers were actually distributed, administrators told Friedman that the papers could not be distributed with the address intact. 

"In my mind that was direct censorship," says Friedman. But because he wanted the papers distributed and says he didn't feel he had a choice, Friedman and staff members spent hours whiting out the contentious information by hand from 1,100 copies of the paper.

At that point, students who worked at the Communicator drafted written guidelines for what the newspaper should publish, but they languished until March, when the next flare-up occurred. The newspaper published a sex column called "Between the Sheets," which offered students 10 tips for spicing up their sex lives. One of the tips, about what to look for in a dildo, "offended the sensibilities on campus and out in the community," says Wall. Friedman adds: "A lot of readers wrote us, saying they couldn't understand what would possess us to publish that." 

Communicator editors decided on their own not to publish the column a second time, but the furor renewed discussion about whether the campus needed clearer editorial guidelines about what the student paper should and should not publish.

Administrators floated the idea of establishing a panel to adjudicate instances when the paper's student editor and the college-appointed adviser disagreed about whether to print something. "We saw that as unacceptable -- as college officials making final decisions for the student newspaper," Friedman says. There was also talk of Freedom ENC Communications, which publishes the local newspaper in New Bern, taking over the Communicator's business operations, a move that national First Amendment groups like the Student Press Law Center actively discouraged. 

Last month, a panel of administrators and students drafted a two-page memorandum that states clearly that the student newspaper is editorially independent, and that it "does not speak for the college, which we would hope would minimize any exposure of liability for the college," Wall says. The college's board is expected to approve the policy at its next meeting in the fall.

Wall insists that Craven officials never sought to control the student paper's content, although they faced pressure to do so. "Out there in the community, we heard lots of, 'Why can't you do something about these kids?' Well, we're not here to 'do anything' about these students. They put a lot of time and work into the paper, and we're proud to have it. It doesn't always say things we agree with, but that's the nature of news, the nature of commentary."

"It took awhile to get to where we are, and there were some hurt feelings and some harsh words exchanged," he adds. "But we're in a good place now. I think we're ready to move forward now, and we're looking forward to reading a good newspaper every month."

Friedman, the student editor, says colleges should let the natural forces of the market control what gets published. "If a newspaper publishes something that is, in the minds of its readers inappropriate, the natural process of reader feedback will moderate the press," he says. "There's no room for administrative meddling in that process, and I believe the college has seen the benefits of stepping back and not putting itself in the position where it could be liable for the newspaper's content. The college has dealt with it a lot better than it did initially." 

Essex County College

The Essex Observer comes out irregularly at the two-year institution in Newark, N.J.; with a skeletal staff, it was published once last fall, and once in May. The paper's editor this year, Melinda Hernandez, says the college-appointed adviser provided little or no guidance and stopped showing up altogether this spring. So the students published their May issue without an adviser, "and no one had a problem with it," Hernandez says.

Soon after, though, as the students planned to publish a graduation edition this month that would contain a traditional list naming and congratulating all the graduates, the college's dean of students, Susan Mulligan, told the students that they could not publish without an adviser. Mulligan also says that the newspaper's constitution requires the Observer to have at least three editors, and that it had only two: Hernandez and Joel Shofar, the managing editor. "If this paper is going to represent the college as a student paper, I don't see two people being representative of the whole college, and the paper's own constitution seems to agree with that point of view," Mulligan says. 

As Hernandez sees it, Mulligan raised the issue of the adviser as a pretext, when what she really didn't like was the content of the Observer's May issue, which contained a commentary written by a student concession-stand worker who was fired for refusing to sell cigarettes to a pregnant woman. "She asked us, 'Why is the paper being used as tool for students to rant?' " Hernandez says of Mulligan. The editor also says that the students put forward a proposed adviser in late May, and that Mulligan rejected him, in part, because he was an adjunct professor.

Mulligan says that the students did not take all the necessary steps (in terms of filling out paperwork and the like) to put the new adviser in place, and that it is "absolutely not true" that the content had anything at all to do with her efforts to stop the Observer from publishing. 

But she acknowledges that she told the students that they could not publish without an adviser, and that when she found out that they were preparing to print an issue for the upcoming graduation that they had produced without an adviser, she called the owner of the printing shop and told him "that the printing was not authorized at this point and to hold up." Because the Observer is a student group, its bills are paid through the college's payroll system, and the dean had the ability to withhold payment.

When Hernandez and Shofar found out a few days before graduation that the paper had not been printed, they came up with $1,100 to cover the tab. The graduation issue did not contain the list of graduates, which Hernandez says Essex officials declined to provide because the paper wasn't publishing officially; instead, across the four pages that should have listed the names, it included a disclaimer blaming Mulligan for the absence, and an image of the Constitution, with the Bill of Rights highlighted, on the cover.

On graduation day, the editors say campus officials barred them from distributing the Observer inside the gymnasium where the commencement ceremony was held, because the paper was not officially approved by Essex. So the students set up shop outside.

Hernandez says she fears Essex wants to shut the paper down; Mulligan insists that's not so.

"It's absolutely critical that students have their voice on campus," she says. "We do what we need to do in terms of providing resources, and we need to work with the small group we have now to figure out how we can get more students involved. There's a meeting planned with the editor next week, and hopefully we will get everything resolved."


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