Imagine the federal government canceling the presidential elections thisNovember because officials are unhappy with media coverage of the candidates.Think about what would happen if the president ordered copies of TheWashington Post removed from newsstands out of fear that the paper’scandidate endorsements would unfairly influence voters. What if the governmentcould lock the doors to The New York Times because officials thoughtan advertisement the paper ran yesterday was inappropriate?
These seemingly impossible scenarios are becoming increasingly commonat the college newspaper level, where student editors are squaring offwith student government leaders over issues of access, coverage, fundingand freedom in an environment in which some people consider press to besynonymous with public relations.
“I think in many ways [the conflict] mirrors some of the friction betweengovernment and press in the ‘real world’ because on both sides of the fencewe’re trying to train our students with realistic job experiences, whetherit’s at the student newspaper or in student government,” said Ron Johnson,faculty adviser for the Kansas State Collegian. “The difference,though, in a higher-education setting, is that sometimes student fees areinvolved.”
At many schools, student publications and student governments are connectedthrough the distribution of funds. Most student newspapers receive at leastsome funding from the university, often through mandatory student activityfees paid by all students and dispensed by the student government. Thissystem can heighten any already — existing conflicts between the two groups.
“When student government students have frustrations with the studentnewspaper, then, quite naturally, they’re going to see student fees astheir avenue to try and assert control,” Johnson said. “That’s what hashappened off and on here at Kansas State and I think at many other collegesthrough the years.”
Despite the fact that the university’s financial backing keeps studentnewspapers operating, courts have ruled that at public schools, this doesnot give officials any power to interfere with the content of the newspaper.If a school has established the publication as a medium over which studenteditors have editorial control, the student newspaper retains similar FirstAmendment rights and protection from censorship as other commercial newspapers.(For more information, see the SPLC book, Law of the Student Press.)
Courts have ruled that actions by public college officials such as confiscatingpapers, censoring content, interfering with circulation, removing staffmembers and withholding funds are prohibited by the Constitution. But atsome schools, where the student government dispenses activity fees, manystudents in elected positions appear to need a crash course in the FirstAmendment.
“In some ways, it’s easy to see how student politicians are trying todo a good job and do the best that they can,” Johnson said. “If they’re[put] in charge of student fees, then they should have a say in how thefees are spent. Conversely, though, that can’t entail censorship or contentcontrol over a student publication. So it’s a natural formula for somefrustration.”
Editors of the student newspaper at New York’s College of StatenIsland have experienced that frustration firsthand. They are suingthe school’s former student government officers and the City Universityof New York system after college officials canceled the spring 1997 studentgovernment elections because they objected to the student newspaper’s endorsementof candidates. The student government also impounded the newspapers atthe printer so that students could not be influenced before the elections.
Ronald McGuire, the attorney representing the student editors, saidthe university wanted to dismiss the case on the grounds that student governmentofficers are not “state actors,” but he thinks their actions representcensorship by the school.
“Our position has been that the newspaper had every right to print whateverit wanted to about the election,” McGuire said.
At Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md., last March, administratorsordered the paper’s printer to delay delivery on the day of the studentgovernment elections at the request of the student government presidentwho feared that the Spokesman’s candidate endorsements would influencethe outcome. The paper did not contain endorsements, but according to editorKevin Howell, the administration thought the paper was not allowed to runthem.
Administrators said endorsements could unfairly impact the outcome ofthe elections, but Howell said he thinks the newspaper has a responsibilityto inform students about the candidates. Johnson agreed, saying he believesthe publication of candidate endorsements is a sign of good journalismand that student newspapers that run them should be applauded, not censored.
“I think that it’s an important role of the press to endorse candidatesor at least make an analysis about where candidates stand because if thepress doesn’t do this, who will?” Johnson said. “But it plays right intothe hands of this controversy between student government and student press.”
Even though the endorsement of candidates has always been a traditionalfunction of newspapers-commercial publications routinely endorse candidatesin their editorial pages — it appears that student newspapers are notalways granted the same freedom. Howell said he thinks this may be becauseof the way student governments view student newspapers.
“I feel that, though we are not the professional media, we should beviewed pretty much the same way,” Howell said. “Sometimes, particularlyon this campus, administrators don’t necessarily take the student newspaperseriously, and they might not think we’re responsible in our coverage.However, our agenda in wanting to endorse candidates is not necessarilyto pick who our favorite was but just to give students the informationso they can go out and vote.”
Newspapers have also traditionally served as a government watchdog,keeping those in power in check. But when this situation is recreated atthe college level, where student reporters try to cover student government-thevery organization that holds their paper’s purse strings-the press’ poweris often limited.
“Over the years, student newspapers and student governments have bashedheads on how college news should be reported, especially when the two haveconflicting views,” said Kristen Hill, former editor of the student newspaperat Berry College in Georgia.
Last winter at New York’s Hudson Valley College, the studentgovernment objected to an advertisement the paper ran for a local stripclub and ordered the paper to not run it again.
After the paper’s adviser quit in the midst of the dispute, the studentgovernment-which has the authority to grant or revoke charters and handlebudget requests for other student organizations — told the paper thatregulations said they could not conduct business without an adviser andlocked student editors out of the newspaper offices.
Although negative publicity convinced the student government to settlethe matter, former Hudsonian editor Tony Gray said threats to cutoff funding were common responses from student senators who had problemswith the paper’s content.
Student newspaper editors, who fight to have their publications takenseriously on campus by maintaining editorial standards and journalisticvalues of newsworthiness, often clash with their student representatives,who want to see favorable coverage of both their organization and the school.
“There’s such a climate in our society, and particularly at collegesand universities, for good press,” said Johnson. “From a political standpointspin predominates, but it’s not just in campus politics, it’s across theentire university environment. Student organizations are incensed whencampus papers don’t give them good press.”
Some editors say student government officials use their position asfunding sources to try to obtain that positive coverage. Gray said thestudent senate at Hudson Valley wanted the paper to report more on itsactivities because, they claimed, students pay for the paper and as theirelected representatives, the senators should have a voice in choosing whatgoes in the paper.
Last year at Michigan’s Lake Superior State University, the studentgovernment even went so far as to attempt to take over the editor selectionprocess by appointing an editor of its choosing.
Former editor Michael Guilmette said The Compass has had numerousconflicts with the SGA and said he believes student representatives donot always have an appreciation for the importance of the student pressor an understanding of its responsibilities.
“I think the majority of the whole issue comes down to the fact thatmembers of the student government did not understand the role of governmentin the press and the role of the press in government,” Guilmette said.
Several recent instances of newspaper theft can also be attributed tocontroversial articles dealing with student government elections or members.Catherine Galioto, editor of The Viking News atOcean County Collegein New Jersey, which experienced a student government-related newspapertheft this year, said that while student senators never hesitated to expresstheir disapproval of what they considered to be the newspaper’s “unfavorablecoverage,” they were always willing to let the newspaper promote otheraspects of their work.
For Johnson, who has spent the past 11 years advising the Collegianand is also a former president of College Media Advisers, there are noeasy resolutions to these conflicts. He said the antagonism between pressand government will continue to exist, particularly when student newspapershave no choice but to receive funding from their schools’ activity fees.
“I feel students do have the right to [allow their representatives tocontrol the fee money],” he said. “But we in student media have to do ourbest to educate students and administrators on why content decisions shouldrest in the hands of the students who run publications and not those incharge of the money.”