On Threats to Student Press Freedom and the Indispensability of Student Journalism: Reflections on the AAUP Report on Student Media

Academics like me are deeply saddened by a report on the status of student media recently released by the American Association of University Professors, Threats to an Independent Student Media.

A call to metaphorical arms, the report should be widely circulated and read. The AAUP portrays the variety of ways in which campus leaders have been pressuring student media organizations and their advisers to be more accommodating to administrative and interest group agendas and to be less controversial and hard hitting. Such pressure is anathema to what a free press should be, and is yet another example of how higher education is failing in its responsibility to educate and prepare students to live in a free society.

Readers should absorb the AAUP report for themselves. Most of the problems concern student media organizations’ exposures of embarrassing or highly questionable actions by administrations or other campus institutions, and pressures exerted against advisers and the organizations to censor themselves. A sampling from the report serves to convey the problem:

It has become disturbingly routine for student journalists and their advisers to experience overt hostility that threatens their ability to inform the campus community and, in some instances, imperils their careers or the survival of their publications, as the sampling of cases discussed in this report demonstrates. Administrative efforts to subordinate campus
journalism to public relations are inconsistent with the mission of higher education to provide a space for intellectual exploration and debate.

None of the cases has been made public, in most instances because the advisers feared for their jobs, regardless of whether the adviser was a staff or faculty member and regardless of his or her tenure status. In many cases, college and university officials threatened retaliation against students and advisers not only for coverage critical of the administration but also for otherwise frivolous coverage that the administrators believed placed the institution in an unflattering light. For example, administrators at one four-year public university demanded that the adviser begin conducting prepublication review after the newspaper published a story about the “top ten places to hook up on campus.” And it is not only administrators who apply this pressure. In the 2016 survey, one media adviser reported that a representative of graduate student government threatened to cut the newspaper’s funding if the newspaper did not cover more graduate student events. In some cases, advisers were told that conducting “prior review”—turning the adviser into a gatekeeper with the ability to overrule the editors’ judgments—was a requirement of employment.

In one especially egregious case, the administration at Southwest College in California intimidated and bullied student journalists and their adviser in hopes of covering up a “pay-to-play” corruption scandal extending to trustees and contractors that ultimately led to criminal convictions. Among other things, administrative intimidation included “freezing the newspaper’s printing budget, cutting the adviser’s salary, and even threatening staff members with arrest.”

My dismay is exacerbated because of my own favorable experience with the student press in the course of my thirty-five year career at Michigan, Notre Dame, and—the last thirty— Wisconsin. During that span I came to appreciate many things regarding the vicissitudes of higher education, along with the usual misgivings, of course. But among the things I valued without qualification was the vital role that an independent student press can play in contributing to the intellectual and political climate of the campus.

A strong student press is indispensable to higher education and American democracy for at least three reasons. First, the student press can be the most independent and courageous voice on campus, a voice that is needed in this age of politically correct conformity and pressure. And in its heyday, virtually everybody read the student press, making it a weather vein of campus opinion and information. I fondly remember walking into large lecture classes in which one or both of the student newspapers at Wisconsin were sprawled across the visages of half or more of the students as class began.

Second, at its best, the student press has often provided an important check on the administrative power that has grown in leaps and bounds in recent years, often in a manner detrimental to the mission of the university, which is pursuit of truth through intellectual freedom. Third, the very experience of working for a viable student press in itself offers excellent training in enterprise and citizenship. Countless students from the student press have gone on to play major roles in national journalism and politics.

To be sure, the student press has sometimes acted like, well, the student press. We have all witnessed the occasional inaccuracies, inexperience, showboating, making mountains out of anthills, and the like that can come with fledgling journalists sowing their idealistic oats. But would I trade the student press’s independence and power for anything? Not on your life.

As a campus citizen and a long-standing adviser to the Badger Herald at Wisconsin, I learned that there is no substitute for a strong, willful, and vibrant student press, of which the Herald served as a sterling example in its prime. Since its inception in 1969 under the aegis of a mandate to provide an independent and distinctive voice, the Herald has prided itself on being 100% financially independent—a fact the relevance of which I will broach below. Financial and intellectual independence were two sides of the same proud coin.

I consider my association with the Herald and its intrepid leaders through thick and thin to have been a highlight of my career. For example, the Herald and its leaders were an integral part of the free speech movement that prevailed for over two decades at Madison, often joyously playing the student Socratic gadfly and counter-voice that the campus so sorely needed. Not surprisingly, countless leaders at the Herald have gone on to play important roles in national journalism and politics, roles that their obstreperous ventures at the Herald helped to prepare them for. With the exceptions to follow, I refrain from mentioning names so as not to leave anyone out.

Katie Harbath, a former Herald leader, is now the head of Facebook’s political outreach unit. I mention her because of an interview she gave me for a book I wrote on campus free speech and liberty. In the interview, Katie touted how she and her Herald allies took a stand for free speech in the face of enormous pressure during a notable campus crisis in 2001. Her words stick with me to this day. “I was never so proud to work for a newspaper. I called Alex [Conant, later Marco Rubio’s communications director] and Julie [Bosman, later New York Times education reporter] and told them how proud I was. I was so excited. That is what we are supposed to be doing, inciting debate. Just to have this happen and to do the right thing was incredible to me… They don’t teach this in journalism school: the responsibility that we have to free speech.”

The emergent pressures against student media are part and parcel of what many liberty-spirited critics of higher education today discern as the rise of a new form of in loco parentis on campus. This movement threatens to take back the hard-earned student freedom that is the one lasting legacy of previous student campus uprisings that called for students to be treated like the young adults they actually are. Among other things—the story is complicated and needs its Thucydides to elucidate what is going on—an odd mixture of administrative bloat and aggrandizement and student activist calls for “freedom from speech” have joined hands to foment pressures to conform. Independent voices are marginalized in the name of community consensus and the obligation not to offend or expose sensibilities and agendas, however unreasonable these might be.

Unfortunately, the new pressures are following in the wake of broader forces that have weakened the student press and freedoms, pressures that have reverberated throughout journalism and society: the proliferation of social media sources that undercut reliance on the student press as the “central station” for campus consciousness; declining advertising income and loss of revenues, which have led many student media organization to rely on support from university or college sources, thereby undermining their independence from the institution; “helicopter” parents who mistakenly encourage their children to take on often meaningless internships in professional media organizations rather than working on the student paper, where they would actually assume genuine responsibilities that truly prepare them for the future; the desire of everyone, including student media, to be “Liked” on Facebook. The list goes on and on, ad nauseum.

A major aspect of the AAUP report stands out: most problems are associated with student media outlets that are financially reliant to various extents upon institutional support. Such dependence opens the door to institutional meddling, and misbegotten court decisions that liken college students to students in secondary education, thereby allowing the nanny-ism to happen. See, e.g., Hosty v. Carter, 412 F.3d 731 (7th Cir. 2005). To be sure, there are examples of institutional interference of independent media as well. But financial independence is a step in the right direction, bringing First Amendment rights into play. Alas, until the Supreme Court rules otherwise, less protective lower court rulings will continue to cause mischief.

This fact points to an important remedy to the problem: the provision of private support from donors who believe in sustaining a free and independent student press, severing the press from the institutional umbilical cord. Indeed, the Herald has moved in this direction, reaching out to former staffers, as have other papers. It is time for outsiders to do the right thing when higher education authorities won’t. Another remedy: journalism professors and other faculty members standing up and speaking out. As Harbath said, “They don’t teach this in journalism school: the responsibility that we have to free speech.” It is time to do so.

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