–FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE–
COLLEGE NEWSPAPER THAT FOUGHT CENSORSHIP TO RECEIVE PRESS FREEDOM AWARD
A Virginia college student newspaper that battled efforts by school administrators to control the content of their publication has been named the winner of the 2004 College Press Freedom Award.
The staff of The Script at Hampton University will receive the award on Saturday, Nov. 6, at the Associated Collegiate Press/College Media Advisers National Convention in Nashville, TN. The award, sponsored by the Student Press Law Center and the Associated Collegiate Press, is given each year to a college journalist or college news medium that has demonstrated outstanding support for the free press rights of students.
The conflict at Hampton began in October 2003 when the editors of The Script attempted to publish a news story that referred to numerous citations for health code violations state officials found at a school cafeteria. When the university’s acting president, JoAnn Haysbert, learned of their plans to cover the cafeteria story, she asked the newspaper to publish a lengthy statement from her on the front page. The Script instead decided to publish the statement on page three and to include comments from the president in their front page news story. In response, Haysbert confiscated all 6,500 copies of the paper, which was to be distributed on campus during Homecoming weekend.
The Script staff, led by Editor in Chief Talia Buford, immediately took action to defend the editorial independence of their publication. They contacted commercial news media organizations and professional journalists in their own community and around the country, held press conferences condemning the censorship and demanded that the university recognize their right to press freedom.
Because they attended a private school, these students did not have the protection of the First Amendment to rely on. And it quickly became clear that they were treading on treacherous ground. Faculty and staff at the school made clear to The Script staff that there could be serious consequences for defying the administration including expulsion from the campus. But Buford and her fellow journalists stood firm. And after two stressful days, the university administration agreed to form a task force of faculty members, students and professional journalists that would make binding recommendations about the relationship of the newspaper to the university. In exchange, The Script agreed to reprint the newspaper with Haysbert’s statement on page one, but accompanied it with a large disclaimer explaining why the newspaper staff believed the university’s demand was a dangerous precedent in bad journalism.
By December, the task force had made its recommendations and the university president had adopted them. Among the new policy statements were provisions endorsing press freedom for The Script so that student journalists could practice their craft in an “unfettered fashion” and prohibiting school officials from ever confiscating the newspaper again.
The conflicts between Hampton University and The Script did not end with the task force report last December. Just this fall, the university delayed publication of the first issue of the newspaper by two weeks by failing to appoint an adviser to the publication. But the policies adopted last fall assisted in resolving that problem in a way that editors hope will avoid similar problems arising in the future.
Because of the courage and the commitment The Script staff demonstrated, Student Press Law Center Executive Director Mark Goodman said the newspaper was the obvious choice for the College Press Freedom Award
“Only those who have attempted to practice journalism on a private school campus with an administration antagonistic to press freedom can fully appreciate the level of bravery The Script staff demonstrated this past year,” Goodman said. “These students are role models for all journalists of the obligation to be an independent source of information for the readers’ benefit and not simply a mouthpiece for those in power.”
“Hampton Unviersity should be proud of the impressive young journalists it has helped produce,” Goodman said.
Student Press Law Center
Read previous coverage
- After controversy, Hampton U. adopts policies ensuring free-press rights News Flash, 1/5/2004
- Editors group pulls funding from Hampton U. after president seized papers News Flash, 11/12/2003
- Hampton U. president limits authority, changes makeup of newspaper task force News Flash, 10/31/2003
- Va. university seizes newspapers after editors refused to run letter on front page News Flash, 10/27/2003