The old ball and chain

Censorship of student media can take many forms, from administrators punishing student journalists for publishing a newspaper article to student governments taking away the student fee money that funds a radio station. Student journalists across the country became all-too-familiar with the many kinds of censorship this spring.

The Long Island University administration has not always approved of what the student newspaper, The Seawanhaka, has written. The paper has published articles critical of cafeteria food prices and about a flier on campus that falsely accused a baseball player of rape, articles that Justin Grant, The Seawanhaka‘s editor, said the administration disapproved of but did not censor.

The newspaper’s publication of an article that disclosed the grades of a former student government president, however, was the last straw. The private school’s administration suspended Grant from his position as editor for a month and Mike Bush was fired as the newspaper’s adviser. Administrators claim the two violated the former student government president’s privacy rights.

In the article, published Jan. 21, the student government president said he was resigning from his position because of ‘personal issues.’ The newspaper cited ‘academic struggles’ as a possible reason for his resignation and listed the former student government president’s grades, which included a B-, an incomplete, two Fs, and a D.

Two days after the article was published, Grant received a letter from the university’s director of student activities notifying him of his suspension. Grant was told the scholarship he receives for editing the paper would be adjusted, forcing him to pay tuition for the month he was not acting as editor of the paper. The Society of Professional Journalists sent a task force to investigate Grant’s suspension.

The dean of students sent Bush a letter, which stated he was being fired from his position as adviser because of his ‘blatant disregard for the rules and regulations that guide and protect this university.’

University officials have said the two were punished for violating the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law that imposes financial penalties on schools that release student educational records, including grades, without the student’s consent. The Department of Education, however, has said that the federal law only applies to university employees or those acting on their behalf, not student newspapers.

Bush said that while he did e-mail the grades to Grant, he was not the source of the information. He said a Seawanhaka reporter was given the grades and gave them to Bush. Bush then e-mailed the grades to Grant, because Grant was out of the office at the time.

Grant has since served his suspension and his entire scholarship was reinstated.

During the month of Grant’s suspension, the newspaper did not publish an issue because, Grant said, the university appointed an administrator with no journalism experience as the newspaper’s adviser.

‘The staff was unanimous that we were not going to publish under [the administrator],’ Grant said. ‘We were prepared to just call it quits.’

Grant said that after a month of not printing a paper, the university removed the administrator adviser and appointed a journalism professor to the position.

Grant said the situation has taught him valuable lessons about journalism and his First Amendment rights. Grant said that if he had to run the article again, he would print it without the student’s grades.

Private schools are not required to give journalists the same First Amendment protections as those attending public schools. But the Student Code of Conduct at Long Island University states that the university ‘is committed to preserving the exercise of any right guaranteed to the individual by the constitution.’

Grant said he has not considered legal action against the school.

Jim Highland, national vice president of campus chapter affairs for the SPJ, said the task force, sent in March, would recommend that the school implement a student publications board and adopt the SPJ’s Code of Ethics.

‘The [publications] board would be made up largely of professional journalists to provide the students with advice when and if they needed it,’ Highland said.

Long Island University has not said whether it will adopt the SPJ task force recommendations.

Because they often have the power to allocate a large amount of funding for student media organizations, student governments are also perpetrators of censorship of student journalists.

A student-run, Internet-based radio station at the University of North Florida is fighting attempts by the student government to censor the station. The station claims student senators slashed its budget and placed guidelines on what music it should play because some did not approve of the station’s content.

Osprey Radio’s funds are allocated through the student government’s budget committee. Elizabeth Macke, station manager for Osprey Radio, said the group was only given $7,000 for the 2004-2005 academic year. She said the station received $29,000 this academic year.

Macke filed a discrimination complaint with the student government’s judicial committee, claiming that the budget cut was unconstitutional and the senators’ opinions of the station’s content ‘should have had no bearing on their decision.’ Two senators were disciplined as a result.

Courts have consistently ruled that the First Amendment does not allow public schools or their student governments to cut funding based on constitutionally protected speech.

Macke said she plans to ask the Jacksonville university’s administration that all of the student media be taken out of the student government funding process. She hopes the school will allow student service fees to directly fund the station.

Another censorship case arose at Baylor University, a private Southern Baptist school in Waco, Texas. The editorial board of The Lariat, the student-run campus newspaper, voted 5-2 to write an editorial supporting gay marriages and the lawsuit filed against California by the mayor of San Francisco on the issue.

After the editorial ran, university President Robert B. Sloan Jr. sent out an open letter condemning the actions of the student newspaper. Sloan said he was ‘justifiably outraged over this editorial.’ He also said the students might have violated university policy by ‘espousing in a Baylor publication a view that is so out of touch with traditional Christian teaching.’

School policy prohibits the ‘advocacy of any understandings of sexuality that are contrary to biblical teaching.’

The Student Publications Board also released a statement that said the editorial violated school policy and Ricky George, a university staff member who supervises the newspaper, said he ‘made an error in judgement’ by allowing the newspaper staff to publish the editorial.

In a press release, the editorial board said it stood by its decision to publish the column.

Student journalists at two private colleges in Pennsylvania found themselves in hot water over their April Fools’ Day editions.

Student journalists at Carnegie Mellon University published a spoof edition of The Tartan called The Natrat (Tartan spelled backwards) on April 1. As part of its edition, the newspaper published a cartoon in which a character uttered a racial slur, which prompted a protest on campus. The university president denounced the newspaper, calling much of the edition ‘horrible’ and ‘offensive.’

The newspaper’s editor, Alex Meseguer, apologized for the content and fired the cartoonist. He also proposed hiring an ‘ethics manager’ to serve as an ombudsman and suggested that the newspaper form a ‘content review board.’

The April Fools’ Day edition of The Aquinas, a student newspaper at the University of Scranton, brought similar complaints and caused the administration to shut down the paper until it meets a list of criteria to resume publishing. The publications board ordered that the editor be fired as well as the removal of all remaining copies of the newspaper from campus and changing the locks to the newspaper’s office.

Vincent Carilli, vice president for student affairs, said the school is requiring the newspaper to ‘develop and publish a statement of ethics prior to resumption of publication.’ Carilli is also creating a list of requirements the paper must fulfill before he will allow the paper to publish again.