Community college official institutes prior review of student-produced news show

CALIFORNIA — A community college official has instituted prior review of a weekly television news program, and the school is using legal precedents to justify it.

In February and March, the dean of creative arts and applied sciences at Long Beach City College restricted the content of three news segments in a student run television show, IE News. Students involved in the show–who are part of a broadcast news production class–say prior review by the college administration has become a regular occurrence that they are starting to question.

Senior producer Adam Dunnakey said the recent instances of prior review began on Feb. 18, when he did a story about Jeff Gannon, a former member of the White House Press Corps who was revealed to have provided a fake name to the White House Press Office and was a freelance reporter for Talon News, which was owned by GOPUSA, a conservative Web site. Dunnakey said the show also included a story about safe sex, in which student anchor Maura Sandoval made comments encouraging men to wear condoms. Dean Gary Scott reviewed the show before it had a chance to air on television.

“When the dean saw the show, he completely removed my piece about Gannon, and he edited out some of our anchor’s comments because he said he was embarrassed for her,” he said.

On March 9, Dunnakey said, IE News produced a segment with footage of police beatings in Long Beach–something that had already aired on other local television stations–but the dean told them a few days in advance that it would be censored.

Scott said he edited content on the show out of fear that it was not accurate, which could create a liability for the college.

“We need to be careful to verify that the information presented is accurate and correct,” Scott told the college’s Viking student newspaper. “This has nothing to do with censoring at all.”

Scott did not return requests by the SPLC for comment.

Sylvia Guerra, a student who works as a co-producer, writer and stage manager for IE News, said she understands why Scott would want to view the show before it is aired.

“It’s for the image of the school. He is the dean and he is in charge,” Guerra said. However, she said, there might be someone more appropriate to review the show before it is aired, since Scott’s background is in music, not television or journalism.

Long Beach City College justified the prior review in a memo sent to broadcast news production instructor Ray Burton. According to Dunnakey, the memo cited two court cases as justification: Brown v. Li and Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. Brown v. Li was used to justify the removal of content from a school-sponsored activity, while Hazelwood was used to justify prior review.

A Ninth Circuit court ruled in Brown v. Li that the University of California at Santa Barbara was justified in requiring a student to remove a “disacknowledgements” section, in which he directed vulgarities at administrators, from a student’s published thesis before they would accept the thesis and grant his degree. The standard set by the Supreme Court in Hazelwood is that if school officials can present a reasonable educational justification for its censorship of certain school-sponsored publications, that censorship is allowed. The Supreme Court’s decision in Hazelwood, however, applied to a high school student publication.

“It seems that both of these [rulings] are completely invalid for the college [student media] environment,” Dunnakey said.

In addition to the First Amendment, there is a state law that specifically protects the free speech of community college students. The California Community College Free Expression Law prohibits community college officials from limiting various student speech activities on their campuses.

Burton said there is a history of prior review that dates back years, although school officials had not previously used Hazelwood to justify their actions because this was the first time the students pushed the administration to show legal justification.

“This has been going on for quite some time,” Burton said. “It is something that I have fought from the very beginning, telling them that they really don’t have the right to do this.”

Burton said he has contacted the ACLU to inquire about the students’ legal options, but he and the students do not have the financial resources to take legal action.

–By Diane Krauthamer