Freedom of the press is one of the most valued rights protected under the United States Constitution. Among other things, the constitution’s First Amendment bars creation of any law limiting freedom of speech, or of the press.
American colleges and universities have a long history of producing journalists for the country’s news media. And many of them get their start by working at their college’s student newspaper.
These student reporters write about many subjects, from school sports to local events. But a new report suggests that some newspapers publishing stories critical of their colleges are under attack.
Who or what is threatening these publications? The report claims school administrators are to blame.
The report, “Threats to the Independence of Student Media,” is a joint project of four groups: the American Association of University Professors, the College Media Association, the National Coalition against Censorship, and the Student Press Law Center.
All four organizations say they support academic freedom in higher education.
Released in December, their report lists actions that college and university administrators have taken because of critical stories in student newspapers.
For example, the University of Kansas reduced financial support for its student newspaper after the student government voted to do so in April 2015.
The paper’s student editors then took a university administrator to court. They claimed the vote was retaliation for a 2014 story critical of the student government election process. Finally, the student government agreed to give the newspaper its full funding.
The report also lists actions taken against advisors to student-operated newspapers.
In the U.S., almost every student newspaper has an individual with journalism experience guiding the reporters. Cheryl Reed was one example.
Northern Michigan University (NMU) asked Reed to serve as its student media advisor for the school’s newspaper, "The North Wind," in 2014. The university also made her a professor of investigative journalism because she has years of experience in the field.
However, it was not long before Reed and her student journalists began to experience problems. In fall 2014, school officials decided to close a popular, independent coffee shop on campus. The school then replaced it with a Starbucks owned by a former NMU student.
The newspaper began to investigate the issue and requested copies of the Starbucks contract. The school first refused before eventually agreeing. Next, the paper requested copies of emails between administrators discussing the activities of "The North Wind." As NMU is a public university, these emails were public record. However, the school tried to charge the newspaper for use of the information.
At this point, the publication board that governs the newspaper became involved. The board’s members voted against paying for the emails. The student journalists then went to social media. The attention that followed led to the school releasing the documents free of charge.
But the problems did not end there. The newspaper published several stories critical of Northern Michigan University. This included reports about sexual assault and payments for travel costs made to one of the school’s trustees.
Then, in April 2015, the newspaper board, made up of students, NMU officials, teachers and community members, voted to remove Reed as the advisor. She and a student editor then took four of the board’s student members and an NMU representative to court. They argued the board violated their free-speech rights because of the critical stories.
During the court case, one student board member made a sworn statement against NMU. She said the board’s administrative representative met with her individually. She said this meeting was designed to persuade her to vote against paying for access to the emails. She also believed the representative influenced other students so they would vote to remove Reed. Yet, the judge decided there was no violation of constitutional rights.
Reed has since left NMU for personal reasons. Also, she fears that many administrators are more concerned with the school’s image than education.
Administrators see colleges more and more as a business, and that in itself is a threat to student journalism, she says.
"There’s this conflict between how administrators want to sell their campuses … and how student journalists see their role in all of this in terms of their trying to report about their campus from a journalistic means," Reed said. "And that means … How does the campus do business? … How safe are these campuses? … These are all major issues for students. And that’s what the journalists are trying to do, cover them in a way that is responsible but also as any journalist would."
Derek Hall, assistant vice president of communications at NMU, denies the board’s action was retaliation or that the administration has power over them. He says the board made its decision for several reasons. This includes concerns about the accuracy of some stories in the newspaper.
But Hall was unable to provide VOA with direct examples of the board expressing these concerns to the paper. And he says he has some regrets about the experience.
"I’m not going to rationalize much of anything that happened there. It was a lot of petty back and forth … A lot of mistakes were made on both sides," he said.
The report on college media lists several other examples of similar actions taken against advisors at other universities.
Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, says the problem seems to be growing. LoMonte notes that 40 years ago, students and parents would be shocked at the actions of these university administrations. But, now young people worry much more about bad reputations reducing the value of their college degrees.
"What seems to be different is that colleges have recognized they can get away with very open and undisguised acts of retaliation because their communities accept that protecting the reputation of the institution is a legitimate use of authority," LoMonte said.
LoMonte says students worry that if their school’s public image is damaged, they will be less likely to find employment. Also, administrators warn students against speaking out, he says. If they do, they risk losing their school’s support in finding a job.
Chris Evans, with the College Media Association, says student journalists can play an important role. Many newspapers around the world have reduced their work force greatly in recent years. And an American research group, the Brookings Institution, reported just 1.4 percent of news stories were about education in 2009.
Evans says universities need journalists to criticize them and make sure they are doing the job of educating as best they can. If few news organizations are reporting on education, students must produce education-related stories.
But, he notes, schools must let students learn the correct skills to become the best possible journalists.
"Good journalism involves questioning authority, not getting permission from authority to publish something. We develop these habits when we’re young. We develop them in high school and then we take them on to college if we are able to go to college, and then out into the newsroom," he said. "And … that’s what perpetuates our democracy, in theory."
In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court decided high school administrators could control their student newspapers however they like. That is why Evans, LoMonte and Reed all support passing legislation called “New Voices” laws. These measures are designed to protect high school and college student journalists from administrative control.
At least 10 U.S. states now have “New Voices” laws. Evans says as more administrators take business-minded attitudes, this is the best way to protect the next generation of journalists.