Student Press Under Pressure

A new report finds that university administrators aim to intimidate and censor content of student news organizations, violating basic principles of press freedom.

December 1, 2016
 

Student news organizations face threats of censorship and intimidation from university administrators, sometimes in the form of budget cuts in the wake of unflattering articles and sometimes with the firings of faculty advisers who encourage aggressive student journalism. These are the findings of a report released today called “Threats to the Independence of Student Media.”

The report aggregated instances of administrative pressure on student media organizations from incidents gathered by the Student Press Law Center and surveys from the College Media Association. The study is a joint effort of those two groups, the American Association of University Professors and the National Coalition Against Censorship.

The publication is not meant to be a quantitative measure of threats to student press freedom, but rather a list that shines light on the sometimes confrontational relationships between student media and university administrations, said Hank Reichman, professor emeritus of history at California State University at East Bay and chair of the AAUP's Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure.

The report cites seven examples in which faculty advisers of student news organizations lost their jobs after reporters pursued controversial stories.

For instance, last year at Northern Michigan University, the student newspaper's board of directors ousted its adviser, Cheryl Reed, and denied the promotion of a student from managing editor to editor in chief. According to the report, these decisions followed “attempts by student journalists to aggressively cover the administration.”

As The Detroit Free Press reported at the time, the ouster of Reed followed open records requests from the student journalists on contracts for a coffee shop at the university and reporting on board members' spending on travel.

But Derek Hall, assistant vice president of marketing and communications at Northern Michigan, said the university's decisions were not made in retaliation for coverage.

“It basically came down to the fact that people on the board could not communicate and were not getting along,” Hall said.

The newspaper board, which is made up of students, the adviser, a community member, a faculty representative and the vice president of student services, was divided, Hall said, which was the reason for the ouster. Hall denied that the decision amounted to censorship.

At another institution, Fairmont State University, in West Virginia, administrators removed a newspaper adviser in 2015 after the paper published a two-part story investigating mold on campus, the report asserts. The report also states that the university's president asked students to cover less controversial stories, but a spokeswoman for the university denied this.

“No member of the administration at Fairmont State University has ever asked the student newspaper not to print a story or not to cover a story," Amy Baker, a Fairmont State official, said via email.

Those examples are part of a larger trend, the report notes. In a poll conducted by the CMA last spring, nearly two dozen advisers said administrators had pressured them to control or censor content.

Constraining or firing newspaper advisers is not the only form of administrative pressure.

According to the report, the University of Redlands cut funding for a student newspaper after a story included a quote from a student who was concerned that funds from a $35 million donation would go to “rich, white males.”

However, a university spokesman said the funding was not suspended because of one specific quote, but because of concerns about "journalistic ethics, accurate reporting, student representation, the advisory structure of the Bulldog Weekly and the fact that nearly $40,000 -- the full cost of the newspaper, funded completely by student activity fees -- was spent yearly on a print newspaper with low readership."

The University of Kansas student government association halved the budget for The University Daily Kansan, a move that was ratified by administrators. The student newspaper then sued the university's chancellor, claiming the funding was slashed in retaliation for unfavorable editorial coverage by the Kansan.

At some institutions, administrators attempted to control coverage by thwarting access to meetings and documents. The report states, “It has become commonplace for colleges and universities to make requesters wait months for the fulfillment of even the simplest requests for public records or simply to ignore the requests entirely. For example, student journalists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill report that it is not uncommon to wait two years or more to receive documents responsive to open-records requests to their institution."

In an emailed response to Inside Higher Ed, a UNC spokesman, Mike McFarland, said, "The university acknowledges there has been a significant past backlog in requests that we’re working diligently to reduce. Over the past three months, the university has reduced the number of requests pending prior to 2016 by almost 70 percent. The office has new leadership and is pursuing best-practice technology changes that we believe will further streamline our process as well as improve efficiency and response time."

McFarland added that 69 of The Daily Tar Heel's 74 requests from 2015 have been fulfilled; this year, 19 of the newspaper's 24 requests have been fulfilled.

Contentious relationships between university administrators and student newspapers are not a new phenomenon, said Reichman of the AAUP. It’s also impossible to quantify whether student press freedoms have gotten better or worse over the past few decades because data are so limited. But these recently recorded incidents seem to feed into a larger trend of what Reichman calls the “corporatization of universities." In other words, when universities to attempt to brand themselves, they tend to see student media as a part of that brand and want these student-run organizations to shy away from controversial or critical stories.

The report concludes with a call for greater safeguards for the student press to combat the tightening reins on press freedom -- for instance, boundaries to separate editorial content from the financial management of student news organizations so that administrators cannot threaten students with financial consequences.

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