One college president said he gave the order to confiscate student newspapersbecause of factual errors and fear of copyright infringement. A communitycollege administrator said she only wanted to help the paper to edit itsown copy, while a director of student development claimed his school’ssolicitation policy gave him no choice but to take the papers. At one university,administrators had been stealing newspapers for 65 years.
As the Report went to press, the U.S. Court of Appeals for theSixth Circuit was set to rule any day on arguably the most famous instanceof administrators confiscating a college student publication, Kincaidv. Gibson. In that case, Kentucky State University officials seizedall 2,000 copies of the school’s 1994 yearbook because they did not likethe color of the cover, the title or the inclusion of a current eventssection. Two students, one of whom served as the editor of the now-infamousyearbook, sued Kentucky State, arguing that administrators violated theirconstitutional rights when they confiscated the books.
A district judge ruled in favor of KSU, citing the Supreme Court’s 1988decision in the high school censorship case, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier.The students appealed, and in 1999, a three-judge panel of the Sixth Circuitupheld the district court’s decision. In May, the case was heard againby the entire Sixth Circuit court (See KSU).
But even as student press advocates anxiously await the judges’ decisionin Kincaid, administrators continue to confiscate student publicationson campuses across the country. And even if the Sixth Circuit rules infavor of the students, it is likely this form of censorship will continue,particularly on private college campuses where administrators are not subjectto the limitations imposed by the First Amendment. So the question persists:Why do so many college administrators feel the need to censor their students’work in this way?
Most college and university administrators who confiscate student newspapersclaim to do it for justifiable reasons. Student editors and reporters havehad to go head to head with presidents, deans and department heads whosay they have a responsibility to the campus community to make sure thatwhat is being published is “for the good of the school.” They say studentpublications should reflect the community and should be used as a toolfor education.
Kenneth Strike, chair of the department of education policy and leadershipat the University of Maryland, said administrators who confiscate newspapers”for the good of the school” usually fear that a less-than-flattering articlewould result in a loss of financial donations or a smudge on their ownreputations.
“Administrators [who confiscate student newspapers to avoid criticism]confuse their own good with that of the institution,” Strike said. “Onecan sympathize with the administrator who does not want to see the budgetgo down the drain because of an intemperate article in the student paper,but not very much — and not enough to justify censorship.”
At Albright College, in Reading, Pa., the president ordered securityofficers to confiscate all copies of The Albrightian distributedaround campus and to unlock the door to the paper’s newsroom to take theadditional copies. School officials said copies of the Nov. 9 issue wereconfiscated because of an article they believed contained inaccurate informationabout the school’s ranking in a college guide. Officials for the collegesaid they were also concerned that the newspaper may have violated copyrightlaws by reprinting some articles from the Reading Times, a localnewspaper.
Matt Kemeny, editor of The Albrightian, said school officials’concerns were unfounded. He said his facts about the school’s standingare accurate, and the administration never questioned the paper’s rightto publish outside stories before — that is until the weekend of Nov.10 when the university was hosting prospective students. Kemeny said hethinks administrators wanted to keep the papers out of the hands of prospectivestudents because they feared the article exposing the college’s fallingrank would give the visiting students a bad impression of the school.
Barbara Marshall, director of college relations at Albright, admittedthat the presence of prospective students on campus did factor into thedecision to take the papers, not because officials did not want studentsto see the rankings, but because they believe the rankings published inBarron’s Profiles of American Colleges were incorrect. She said the guidewas mistakenly given erroneous information that lowered the school’s score.Marshall said that because the school is the publisher of the newspaperand is responsible for what it prints, officials felt they had a responsibilityto prevent incorrect information from circulating around campus.
Marshall added that administrators only delayed distribution of thepapers, they did not confiscate them entirely. The issues were returnedto the newspaper staff following a heated discussion between newspaperstaffers and school officials over press rights. Nothing regarding thepaper’s rights was resolved, but administrators reluctantly returned allcopies of the issue.
At New York’s Yeshiva University, administrators gave the YUCommentator $1,850 to compensate it for all the times school officialsconfiscated copies of the newspaper when the university had important visitorsor special events on campus.
The articles that prompted administrators to confiscate papers in November1999 included one questioning the firing of a secretary and another insinuatingthat Yeshiva officials were not properly using an $8 million gift to theschool. The administration also stole copies of an issue that had a storyabout the confiscation itself.
Aaron Kline, former co-editor of the Commentator, said this patternof censorship had gone on for 65 years until the administration admittedto it, apologized, promised to keep it from happening again and compensatedthe paper financially.
Although Yeshiva is a private college, it is against school policy toconfiscate newspapers, according to Kline.
“They’re scared right now,” Kline said. “They’re not going to do itagain, not this year at least. They are really afraid of more bad publicity.”
The administration admitted confiscating the papers only after theCommentatorcontacted The New York Times. The Times published a storyabout the paper’s allegations, and not long after, the student publicationreceived a letter from administrators apologizing for the thefts.
At the College of Lake County, in Grayslake, Ill., administratorswere also concerned about the student newspaper making the school lookbad. But it was grammatical errors in the paper, not an inflammatory article,that led officials to halt publication in March.
Darl Drummond, the college’s vice president of student development,allegedly told the small, disorganized staff of The Chronicle inMarch that if they did not allow her to review the newspaper for spellingand grammatical mistakes she would call the printer and halt publication.When Elizabeth Galant, editor of The Chronicle, refused, the printerdid not publish the issue.
Drummond claims she never called the printer. She said the printer calledher to tell her The Chronicle had not paid its bill, and thereforeit would not print the issue.
Galant has since left the paper and could not be reached for comment.
Drummond said what she did was not censorship. She said it was an offerof assistance and an attempt to get the editors’ attention and help themunderstand the problems with the newspaper’s content.
“I believe free press is an inherent right of student newspapers,” Drummondsaid. “Having said that, I also believe that the student paper has a responsibilityto its community, to weigh and evaluate through its editorial process,what is appropriate or inappropriate within its environment.”
Albright College’s director of college relations agrees.
Marshall said Albright also encourages free speech and freedom of thepress, but as an educational institution, administrators feel they havean obligation to educate students.
“It’s not just a free-for-all,” she said. “[The student journalists]are here for a purpose, so the idea of using the paper as a vehicle forfurthering their education is something that is very important to us aswell. The Albrightian is primarily an educational medium, and as an educationalinstitution, the college also has the responsibility to make students awareof possible consequences of items contained in the paper.”
At some schools, conservative voices have sometimes prompted censorshipby their more liberal administrators.
Last spring, the editor of The Conservative Column at Pennsylvania’sVillanovaUniversity accused university officials of censorship when they confiscatedall 2,000 copies of the March 15 issue, saying it was because the paperdid not have an adviser.
Chris Lilik, editor of the student newspaper, claimed Tom Mogan, directorof student development, took the press run because the paper is often criticalof liberals on the Catholic school’s campus.
Mogan admitted to Lilik on an answering machine message that there wassome concern about the content of the newspaper and that he was going tohold the papers in his office until The Column found an adviser.But Mogan said the problems he had with the newspaper’s content were aminor reason for the confiscation. The main issue, he said, was the factthat The Column was not an official student organization on campus,and as such they could not distribute the paper. He said unauthorized distributionof material on campus violated the school’s sales and solicitation policy.
After The Column secured an adviser, Mogan returned the papersto the staff.
Advocates for press freedom on all levels contend that censorship goesagainst the very reason colleges and universities exist. Strike said thatalthough the ideal of such a free society may have some adverse effectson the school, administrators must embrace that ideal in order to educateby example.
“The marketplace of ideas is a central feature of the environment ofany institution that views itself as a center of inquiry,” Strike said.”Apart from some compelling justification, censorship erodes this key value.Responsible administrators will recognize that there is occasionally, maybeeven literally, a price to pay for intellectual freedom and will use theoccasion to educate donors and citizens about the importance of the marketplaceof ideas.”