Student journalists prevail in battles over censorship

Each year, student journalists fight college administrators over the right to publish student newspapers free from censorship. At least three persistent student journalists prevailed in high-profile battles against their university administrations this spring.

Student journalists at private universities are not guaranteed the same rights as their public university counterparts when it comes to publishing a newspaper without administrative interference.

Perhaps no one knows that better than Talia Buford, the editor of a student newspaper at Hampton University in Virginia. In October, Buford defied orders from the university president to publish an administration memo on the front page of The Hampton Script. Buford instead published the memo on Page 3 and a staff member’s article on the cover, prompting the private school’s administration to confiscate the entire Oct. 22 press run before it could be distributed.

The memo and article dealt with health-code violations at a university cafeteria.

But Buford, upset that the school would resort to censorship, stuck by her decision and spent two tense days negotiating the formation of a task force that would make recommendations on how much administrative control the university should have over the newspaper. The administration agreed to the task force and allowed the newspaper to begin publishing again.

As part of the agreement, the newspaper staff reprinted the newspaper with the administration’s memo on the front page.

In January, JoAnn Haysbert, the school’s acting president, endorsed recommendations of the task force, ensuring the newspaper’s free-press rights. The 11-member task force recommended that:

‘ Student journalists at The Script should ‘have the right to a free press in order to practice their craft in the unfettered fashion envisioned by the framers of the First Amendment of the Constitution;’

‘ No administrator, faculty member, student or university-affiliated organization will confiscate and/or halt the distribution of the newspaper;

‘ The newspaper’s advisers must have adequate knowledge of journalism;

‘ An advisory board made up of faculty and students should be established and empowered to resolve issues between the editors and advisers.

‘We wanted to make sure things didn’t go back to the way they were before,’ Buford said. ‘I’m happy with [the resolution] but not sure how happy yet because it hasn’t all been implemented.’

The advisory board, which will have to power to choose the editor and advertising manager, has yet to be established.

‘It takes time to get the board put together. It will definitely be put in place before the fall,’ Buford said. She said that for now, the newspaper has editorial independence.

‘Even though sometimes things are hard to do, it’s always best to stand up for what you believe in,’ Buford said.

Haysbert did not return requests for comment.

Because of her role in defending the newspaper, Buford won the 2004 Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in April and received recognition from the Hampton Roads Black Media Professionals.

When staff members at the Heights, a student newspaper at Boston College, went to renew their campus office lease in September, they discovered that the private university included new stipulations.

The proposed lease would have required the paper to, among other things, refuse advertisements for alcohol or tobacco products, adopt a code of ethics, form a faculty advisory board and give the university and its student groups a 50-precent discount on advertisements.

The stipulations were included in the lease proposal because of complaints about a sexually explicit ad for a Boston nightclub the paper ran last year, said Jack Dunn, a spokesman for the university.

The newspaper’s editors felt the university was trying to limit the paper’s independence. But after months of negotiations, the newspaper staff and university officials compromised. The university agreed to drop the proposed stipulations in January. In exchange, the newspaper staff agreed to pay more in rent and either hire an ombudsman to handle reader complaints or hold an open meeting to solicit reader feedback each semester.

The newspaper paid $50 per month under its old lease. Under its new lease, rent is $700 per month.

A medical student who sued Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center after he was expelled for writing about an autopsy in a student newspaper was awarded more than $74,000 in a settlement agreement with the university in January.

Sandeep Rao was expelled in April 2002 for allegedly violating a confidentiality agreement with the Health Sciences Center. The agreement prohibited Rao from releasing identifying information about the autopsy that he witnessed as part of an assignment.

Rao, a columnist for the University Daily, wrote a column to ‘debunk the mystery assigned to forensic pathology by the popular media, and to describe the physician-patient relationship of forensic pathology in comparison to other fields of medicine,’ according to court documents.

Rao sued the university, claiming it violated his First Amendment rights. Both the district and appeals courts ruled in Rao’s favor, ordering the school to reinstate him.

Rao, his attorney and the school’s lawyer signed a settlement agreement Jan. 24.

‘Although Texas Tech disagreed with the merits of Mr. Rao’s case, it acknowledges that both the trial and appellate courts ruled against it, and authorized a temporary injunction in Mr. Rao’s favor,’ said Andrew Golub, Rao’s attorney.

Rao is still a medical student at the university in Lubbock.