University president confiscates Virginia student newspaper for coverage of health-code violations

Student editors said that HamptonUniversity officials agreed Oct. 24 to form a task force on the future of thestudent newspaper, two days after the school’s acting president seized allcopies of the paper’s homecoming issue.

But days later, editors say theacting president altered her pledge by attempting to change the composition androle of that task force.

The situation stemmed from an incident Oct. 22when administrators at Hampton confiscated all 6,500 copies of the TheScript because editors refused to run a letter from the university’s actingpresident on the front page, students said.

The acting president at theprivate school reportedly objected to a front-page story about health-codeviolations at a university cafeteria.

As part of the deal, Talia Buford,editor of The Script, agreed to reprint the paper with the memo fromActing President JoAnn Haysbert on the front page on the condition that a taskforce with specific members be created to define the relationship between thenewspaper and the university and that the university would adopt the taskforce’s decisions.

Haysbert’s letter, which was originally printed onPage 3 of the newspaper, responded to the article that detailed more than 100health-code violations in four visits by the Virginia Department of Health sinceMarch. 

“We didn’t print something where they wanted it,” TaliaBuford, editor of the Hampton Script told the Hampton Roads DailyPress . “And they took the papers away.”

Various professionalorganizations had condemned university administrators for their actionsincluding Black College Wire, the National Association of Black Journalists andthe American Society of Newspaper Editors.

The ASNE, which recentlydonated $55,000 to HU’s journalism school for a summer training institute forhigh school journalists, has said that it will re-evaluate whether to continueits grant program.

“As of today, given our disappointment and deepconcern, we are in the process of re-evaluating whether there will be a 2004institute at Hampton,” said Diana Mitsu Klos, senior project director for theASNE.

Herbert Lowe, president of the NABJ and a crimes and courtsreporter for Newsday, made a personal call to Buford. “[I] let her knowthat I and every member of NABJ stands behind her.”

Black College Wireposted some of the stories in the confiscated issue of The Script,including the story about the cafeteria’s health-code violations.

AfterHaysbert announced the creation of the task force, editors thought thecontroversy might be behind them. But on Oct. 29, Buford received a letter fromthe acting president announcing that she was adding three additional facultymembers to the task force and that it was not within her authority “to changethe institutional model” on which the paper was created.

Scripteditors have said they will continue to fight for an independent studentnewspaper at Hampton.

SPLC View: While administrativeconfiscations of college student newspapers remain an extreme and rareoccurrence in this country, this is nevertheless a classic case of schoolofficials confusing journalism with propaganda. Congratulations to thecommercial press community and others for rallying behind the student editorialstaff and so quickly and forcefully condemning the administration’s actions. But it appears the administration has yet to learn itslesson.