Many student journalists discover early on that freedom of the press is rarely a school priority. Take, for example, Amanda Escamilla, a student at Wellington High School in Palm Beach County. When she penned a column in February about the pros and cons of teenage virginity—urging her fellow students to "make sure, when the time comes, you truly want to swipe your v-card, because this purchase is non-refundable." – the school responded by destroying every single copy of the paper and threatening suspension for any student caught with one. This may seem par for the course for jittery administrators nervous about sexual content, but such antics extend onto college campuses as well. When the University Leader, the student paper of Fort Hays State University in Kansas, published a front-page story about the possibility of the school’s College of Education and Technology losing its accreditation, all 500 copies placed in the college building disappeared.
These are just a few examples of the hundreds of clashes each year between student journalists and school administrators over press freedom and access to information. High school faculty and administrators who see the school paper as a way of teaching the proper use of semi-colons are rarely delighted to find a budding Woodward or Bernstein in their midst, while college journalists often clash with administrators who want to keep important university business out of the public eye. When these conflicts arise, students rarely have a good grasp of what exactly their legal and constitutional rights are.
This is where the Student Press Law Center comes in. Founded in 1974 as a resource for high school and college journalists, SPLC receives 2500 calls a year from students facing intimidation, stonewalling or evasion from school administrators. In addition to operating a hotline, the center coordinates a network of lawyers around the country willing to defend student journalists pro bono and provides an impressively comprehensive list of resources on Freedom of Information Act, sunshine laws and press freedom on its web site.
Executive Director Mark Goodman, a one-time student reporter and journalism major at the University of Missouri and a graduate of Duke Law School, recently spoke to Campus Progress about the issues facing student journalists today.
I think a lot of people had some controversy while they were in high school in which the school paper and the administration clashed over an issue, and the grown-ups always had these arguments about how “press freedom” in an educational setting is circumscribed by the overall educational mission. Does that hold true in a university setting?
No. In the college and university environment the courts have been very protective of student free expression and press freedom. Every court decision from the last 35 years has said that at a public college or university school officials have virtually no authority to censor the content of a student publication. There are constant battles, as you’d imagine, but the courts time after time after time tend to reinforce that.
Now there’s a case pending before a federal appeals court in Chicago, where a university is arguing that the limitations that apply to the rights of high school students should be extended to college students as well. It involves a student at Governor’s State University, which is a public university south of Chicago, where a school administrator called the printer of the student newspaper and told the printer not to print any further issues of the publication unless this administrator or someone she’d designated had reviewed the content first. The student editors, of course, said they weren’t going to allow that kind of review and as a result the newspaper stopped publishing. This was in the fall of 2000 and this paper hasn’t published since.
What are the most common complaints you hear from student journalists?
The most common issue is censorship, school officials who don’t like what student journalists are trying to publish, often times because it’s perceived as critical of school policies or officials and want to prevent it as a result.
In addition to censorship, we find that we are getting a lot of questions from students who are trying to get access to public records or meetings and are being blocked in their efforts to do that. For public schools, the vast majority of the information they produce is a matter of public record and yet many schools don’t want to give that info out.
A few weeks ago a number of organizations organized Sunshine Week to emphasize the importance of government transparency. How transparent, generally are universities? What are the kinds of guidelines for access? I imagine there’s a difference between public and private institutions.
There is. Definitely there’s much more information available for public schools, and even amongst public schools it really does largely depend on the state that you’re in, because most of these issues are defined by state open records laws. One thing we emphasize is that financial records, how the school spends its money, what it spends it on and where the money comes from, are typically going to be a matter of public record.
There are also some federal disclosure requirements that are increasingly important. For instance, information about campus crime has been a real hot topic. Schools don’t want to release it because they think that it’s going to make the school look bad, but journalists as well as crime victims recognize that this information is crucial for people to be able to protect themselves.
The Bush administration has gotten a lot of criticism for drastically increasing the number of government documents withheld from the public. I wonder if you see any trickle-down effect in schools in terms of an atmosphere of secrecy that’s been created.
I think there’s no question that there’s a correlation. This administration is probably one of the most secretive we’ve had in my lifetime and I think their attitude towards control of information is shaping the way things are done at all levels of government.
Since 9/11 we’ve seen more schools using security and even national security justifications for denying access to information on their own campus. There’s a case going on at the University of Texas where the student newspaper asked for access to the information about the security cameras that had been posted around campus and the university refused to provide virtually all of the information, though ultimately they were forced to turn over some of it. And one of their arguments was national security. It’s a bit of a stretch to argue that the cost and location of some security cameras on campus is key to fighting terrorism, but I think it’s a reflection of what people see go on here in Washington, and they translate that to their own environment.
Next thing you know there’s going to be a columnist in a student paper somewhere who turns out to be on the dole from the school’s administration.
You never know. I pray that doesn’t happen, but you never know.
One thing that always struck me in college was that when you’re on the outside, universities seem so benign, but it’s amazing how ruthless they can be in pursuit of what they feel are their institutional interests.
Yes, one thing that’s been very disturbing to us is that today college university administrators increasingly see their role as that of a corporate CEO and not that of a chief educator. As a result some of the really fundamental principles of higher education get completely ignored. We have a real sense here that we need to look at colleges and universities as instilling the values of a democratic society and if you ask most college and university administrators about what they see as the most important part of their role, I bet most wouldn’t even put that in the top ten.
It’s funny you mention CEO’s, there’s been a lot of talk recently about the increasing corporatization of American Universities. Has this trend impacted freedom of the press on college campuses?
What we hear is that when students want to report on outside contracts with corporations, or the relationship between the university or faculty members and outside companies, often times the schools want to cover it up just because they’re afraid it’s going to look bad. That includes everything from the contract that determines who’s going to get exclusive rights to the soda machines on campus to what kinds of grants researchers are getting from big corporate interests that shape the choices that are made about what subjects to look into and in some cases, arguably, the outcome. So I think it’s a real concern.
So what’s the recourse there in terms of getting access to that sort of information?
At a public university I think there’s a pretty good argument to be made that the information about the contract itself should be a matter of public record, and it’s something students should be able to ask for. They may have to push and it may not come at the first request, but they at have a pretty compelling legal argument that they have a right of access to it.
There’s also been a fair amount of controversy on campuses of late about closed disciplinary hearings that are not open to the public. What’s your take on these policies?
There is a very real and rational perception that colleges and universities are increasingly channeling serious criminal infractions into internal campus disciplinary proceedings as a way to avoid public disclosure about those incidents. Where we see it come up most frequently is when allegations of wrongdoing are made against athletes or other “privileged” individuals on campus. It’s very common for the school to say we’re going to deal with this in internal disciplinary proceeding instead of actually filing a police report because if they handle it internally nobody has know what happened. The idea that an internal campus disciplinary hearing is an appropriate venue for dealing with an accusation of rape or theft is really troubling.
So the battle really is over the openness of these kinds of proceedings, especially when they relate to criminal or legal misbehavior. The idea that campus disciplinary bodies only deal with academic dishonesty and the like is really no longer accurate and yet a lot of people, I think, don’t realize how many serious incidents are dealt with internally.
What should a college journalist do when confronted with one of these issues?
The first thing is to understand what their rights are, what the law says in terms of what they can and can’t get access to and what they can and cannot publish. Our web site is a great resource for that. We certainly encourage folks to call or email us if they have a problem and want some practical suggestions for how to get the information they’re looking for.
Many schools rely on the fact that students aren’t there forever and so they just try to wait them out. So you have to persist. If your request is denied, realize it may take time. It may take longer than you’re going to be in your position as editor of the newspaper, but find someone coming behind you who can be as informed as you are about the issue and follow up on the battle you started. What we find is when schools realize they can’t just wait out the students, they’re more likely to do what the law requires them to do and provide the information requested.