Media organizations release report revealing threats to student journalism

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Update 12/1/16: This article has been updated to reflect an interview with UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof.

Hoping to bring more awareness to the core principles of free student press, four national media organizations released a report Thursday revealing college administration threats to student journalism and their faculty advisers.

The report was authored by the American Association of University Professors, the College Media Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Student Press Law Center, and it was the first joint formal report in a long time addressing this issue. Derived from a survey of media advisers at student papers across the country, the report found a “disturbingly routine” trend of adviser firing, financially motivated censorship or denial of access to information as a result of university actions.

“There’s always been tension between colleges and their student media,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of SPLC. “What I think is new is that colleges are more blatant about retaliating … Colleges have decided that there is more reputational gain in killing off aggressive journalism than being harmed for disrespecting press freedom.”

The majority of student media does not experience financial and editorial freedom from their university, according to Kelley Lash, president of CMA. The report lists several of these cases that occurred in 2015 alone, often caused by “aggressive student journalism.”

The report described the University of Missouri student paper, the Maneater, after an assistant professor attempted to bar a student reporter from recording a protest on campus. Jared Kaufman, editor-in-chief of the paper — which is editorially independent from the university — said the relationship between the newspaper and campus administration has fluctuated over the paper’s 61-year history, but as of now, it remains positive.

“We will continue to have an aggressive editorial stance to hold people accountable,” Kaufman said.

LoMonte said a student journalist’s’ role is like an auditor for college and universities, an inspector who examines the financial books — rather than being told to write in favor of their employee, they write what they see. He said they deserve to be taken seriously — college journalism is every bit as real as college football is — yet they do not receive nearly the same respect as national news organizations.

“A (faculty) adviser is like a teacher,” said Hank Reichman, the first vice president of the AAUP. “They should provide guidance, raise questions, but let you decide (what to write).”

Lash said student journalism is a fundamental learning experience, vital to training civic democracy for the next generation of professional journalists in a time where mainstream media is less respected. The student press should not been seen as harmful for university administrations, but as a potential ally that can highlight issues students care about, according to Lash.

Brandon Carter, editor-in-chief of the WKU Herald at Western Kentucky University, said his newspaper has very good support from its administration, especially because the school’s president, Gary Ransdell, is a strong advocate for the freedom of the student press.

Elsewhere at the Michigan Daily at University of Michigan Ann Arbor, Editor-in-Chief Shoham Geva said while her newspaper did not always have editorial or financial independence, its current independence has given them the same respect and credibility professional journalists have.

“It is never even a lingering fear that the university would step in or shut (content) down because they can’t,” Geva said. “It really gives us the ability to chase those stories … and just focus on the journalism.”

The Daily Californian has been independent from the campus since 1971, putting the paper in a “unique position” with respect to the campus, according to Editor-in-Chief Michelle Pitcher.

Harvard Crimson President Mariel Klein said her newspaper’s independence is crucial to its job and allows it to cover Harvard in all of its highs and lows, to the extent it wants to without any barriers.

“No one covers Harvard like we do,” Klein said, in contrast to national newspapers. “A lot of things happen at Harvard that (are) still incredibly important to our community.”

Dan Mogulof, spokesperson for UC Berkeley, said he believes it is in everyone’s interest to have a student newspaper that is completely “autonomous,” as that supports the paper’s credibility for the most important of audiences — the university’s students.

“We’re like every other entity that’s covered regularly in the press,” Mogulof said “We at times have concerns about objectivity and balance in coverage.”

Ultimately, the report called for better protections from state governmentswhere protections vary from state to state — because of a lack of clarification for student media rights in universities from the Supreme Court.

As of today, only five states have protections at the college level for student media: Oregon, Illinois, Maryland, North Dakota and California. According to LoMonte, California has the most comprehensive protection, state education code 66301 and 94367, which unlike other states restricts both private as well as public campuses from punishing student newspapers prior to or after after publication, except in extreme circumstances.

According to the report, lower courts have had trouble defining the boundaries for restrictions on the First Amendment for universities regarding student journalism because the Supreme Court lacks an established position. Some courts have used the precedent set by Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier (1988), which gave schools the right to censor high school journalism when they saw fit.

Lash is hopeful of movements such as the The New Voice, which since last year has fought against restrictions, resulting in greater protections for student journalists in North Dakota, Illinois and Maryland. Lash said closer relationships between universities and their student newspapers will build better trust, so that when a big story breaks, the campus will trust journalists to do their job.

“Student media is a very interesting climate to be in and (it’s) unpredictable,” Pitcher said. “It’s crucial that these students be given every opportunity possible to learn about tenets of journalism.”

Contact Gibson Chu at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @thegibsonchu.