Administrators at R.I. university pull opinion article from campus newspaper

RHODE ISLAND — Journalism student Jason Turcotte learneda few things at Roger Williams University this spring althoughthey were not the kind of lessons he had expected to be taught.

In late February, Turcotte submitted an article he had writtenin the journalism class for publication in the campus newspaperThe Hawk’s Eye, only to find out later that administratorshad pulled the piece.

The article was a breezy feature about an unofficial nicknamefor the Bristol school’s student body, "Rich, White Underachievers."The piece focused on student reaction to the nickname and wasmostly their opinions.

"When I first read the story I didn’t even think it was controversial,"editor Sarah Clarke said. "Usually, if an article is fairlycontroversial, I think ‘Oh great, here we go — we’re going tohave to fight to get this one printed.’ But with this story, Inever had any concern. It seemed pretty well written, pretty fair,unbiased."

Clarke, who is required to submit the paper to administratorsbefore it is published, was told by Assistant Dean of StudentsTamara Von George the story would have to be changed before itran.

"They wanted us to talk to admissions, they wanted usto talk to financial aid and they wanted us to talk to the interculturalcenter," Clarke said. "They basically wanted us to verifythat we were in fact rich, that we were in fact white and thatwe were in fact underachievers through statistics and that wasn’tthe point of the article. The article was just a student reactionpiece."

"[Von George] told us that the school thought it was badPR," Clarke added, "but a student newspaper, as Jasonpointed out, is not a PR tool for the school."

Neither Von George nor Dean of Students Richard Stegman returnedcalls requesting comment. But Rick Goff, executive director ofpublic affairs for the university, denied that pulling the articlewas an example of censorship.

"It wasn’t censored in the sense that someone said ‘itcannot run,’ " Goff said. "What one of the people thathelps oversee the newspaper said was ‘That probably shouldn’trun until it’s more balanced.’ So the invitation was there tojust go ahead and interview an administrator or two and then resubmitit."

Turcotte tells a different story.

"I wouldn’t exactly call it an ‘invitation’ to speak withadministrators," he wrote via e-mail. "Once my articlewas not allowed to print the administration never approached meas to why. I sought out a meeting on my own accord with [Stegman]."

Turcotte said that Stegman tried to change the focus of hisarticle.

"He wanted me to write about what RWU was doing to improvediversity and the academic backgrounds of students, which wasnot the intent of my story," Turcotte continued. "Myintent was to write a feature about perceptions and stereotypesamong the student body, not to write a cozy press release aboutwhat RWU is doing to improve the student body demographics."

Turcotte chose not to resubmit the article.

The Hawk’s Eye receives nearly all of its funding fromthe school, which leaves the paper with little leverage to fightthe prior review policy, Clarke said.

"I don’t think there’s anything written down," shesaid. "It’s all what [administrators] say. They say thatthey can review our paper so they can. And they say that if wedon’t like it, then we don’t have a paper. If I didn’t give itto them to look over and I just sent it to press, they wouldn’tpay the bill and they would cut off our funding so that’s howthey have power over us. It’s not written down but every timewe say ‘Look, we have First Amendment rights,’ they say ‘Uh uh,you’re at a private university, you don’t.’ "