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Student Journalism Under Fire

By Gwendolyn Bradley

It has become routine for student journalists and their advisers to experience hostility that threatens their ability to practice journalism and sometimes threatens their careers or the survival of their publications, says a report issued in December by the AAUP, the College Media Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and the Student Press Law Center. The report, titled Threats to the Independence of Student Media, examines current threats and expands upon the basic principles of a free student press previously endorsed by these and other organizations.

The report cites multiple cases in which college and university administrations have recently exerted pressure in attempts to control, edit, or censor student journalistic content. Types of pressure have included

 • demands that faculty or staff advisers to student newspapers conduct “prior review”—turning the adviser into a gatekeeper with the ability to overrule the editors’ judgments;

• firings of advisers;

 • financially based censorship, including the elimination of journalism programs and student journalistic publications, often in alignment with conflict over editorial content; and

 • denial of access to student journalists, for example by being unresponsive to open-records requests or holding closed door “pre-meeting meetings” at which all meaningful discussion of agenda items is conducted.

The report finds that administrative efforts to subordinate campus journalism to public-relations concerns are inconsistent with the mission of higher education to foster intellectual exploration and debate. And while journalism that airs controversial topics or discusses institutional shortcomings can be uncomfortable, it fulfills an important civic function. With widespread staffing cuts at traditional news organizations, the role that student journalists play as frontline information providers is more and more important. It is therefore essential that they enjoy the protections of a free press.

The report affirms earlier recommendations that student media editors and advisers should be free to develop their own editorial policies and protected from suspension or removal because of student, faculty, administration, or public disapproval of editorial policy or content. Student media must also be free from all forms of external control, including confiscation of its products, suspension of publication or transmission, academic or budgetary sanctions, arbitrary removal of staff members or faculty, or threats to the existence of student publications or broadcast outlets.

Noting that student journalism is in a legal gray area, the report outlines protections that should be afforded to student journalists and their advisers and calls for greater safeguards in institutional policies and state law to curb the worst abuses of student media rights. Recommended protections include financial independence or diversified sources of revenue; oversight that is structured to prevent those outside the student editor’s office from overruling editorial judgments or retaliating for journalistic choices; and boundaries that separate the selection of editorial content from any managerial oversight by campus administrators.

Ultimately, the report concludes, ensuring a campus environment conducive to substantive journalistic coverage requires a significant cultural readjustment that begins with those at the topmost levels of higher education. Many colleges and universities embrace “civic engagement” as part of their educational mission, but few are “walking the walk” of civic engagement by maintaining higher education’s traditional commitment to free and independent journalistic voices.

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