North Carolina college debates outsourcing paper

In an attempt to avoid a battle over a proposed policy that would impose administrative prior review of the student newspaper, Craven Community College may turn over the Campus Communicator to a private publisher.

At an April 4 student council meeting, Craven’s executive vice president and chief academic officer, Cindy Hess, proposed “outsourcing” the newspaper to Freedom ENC Communications, a commercial newspaper publisher, as a “compromise meant to end the dissent and threat of lawsuits” by student journalists, according to the New Bern Sun Journal. A 10-1 vote by the student council supported the proposal, but no final decision will be made until a vote by the college’s board of trustees.

College spokesman Sandy Wall said the proposal would grant a one-year license to Freedom ENC to publish the newspaper, with students remaining on the newspaper’s staff. The New Bern Sun Journal reported on April 5 that Freedom ENC would be in charge of the Communicator’s editorial content and advertising department. Student Jason Thomas criticized the proposal in the article as being the college’s “easy way out” of resolving their attempt to infringe on students’ free speech. But Wall responded that the proposal is a “win-win-win scenario for all parties.”

Debate over the proposed prior review policy, which would have created a committee made up of administrators and students leaders to review information when there is a disagreement between the editor and advisers on content, stems from a sex advice column that premiered in the Campus Communicator on March 4. Editor Corey Friedman said that over the next three days, the newspaper was “flooded” with complaints. People were also complaining to the school administration, threatening to withdraw their donations and not send their children to the school.

Friedman cancelled the column, and the newspaper apologized and made it “known publicly that that column would not run again,” he said. On March 7 he met with Craven Community College President Scott Ralls, who told Friedman that he was very distressed because of the negative attention the sex column brought to the college.

The notion of implementing an editorial policy was first raised in October, when the newspaper grappled with the school administration over printing the name and address of a student assault suspect. School administrators impounded all 1,100 copies of the newspaper at the college mailroom until Friedman consented to conceal the information with correction fluid.

After meeting, the newspaper staff and administrators agreed that written guidelines should be developed for the newspaper. Friedman and adviser Monica Dowe drafted about 20 pages of guidelines, which they planned on passing to the student council for approval, but the college administration drafted the new editorial policy before these guidelines were passed. Friedman said the guidelines he and Dowe drafted would have been acceptable to the newspaper staff because it did not subject the Communicator to prior review. However, he said he believes the school used the guidelines that the newspaper created and turned them into a more restrictive editorial policy.

Wall said the new proposal to outsource the Communicator stems from “a desire to resolve this divisive, time-consuming disagreement to everyone’s satisfaction,” and it will ultimately improve the school’s relationship with the newspaper.

At its April 19 meeting, the college’s board of trustees received a petition with 54 signatures from students and CCC staff asking the board to institute “editorial independence” with no oversight for its student-edited media. At the same meeting, Ralls informed the board that the agreement with Freedom ENC was not ready for their review. The next board meeting is scheduled for July.

SPLC View: Following in the steps of their corporate counterparts, Craven Community College officials have apparently jumped on the “outsourcing” bandwagon. One can only wonder if administrators there will next suggest selling a student choir to a local church or an athletic team to a professional franchise.

What too many college officials just do not seem to understand is that one of the most important reasons for having a student newspaper is to give students the opportunity to cover the issues that matter to them in a way they find appropriate and to learn from their mistakes. That will not happen if students do not have content control. The students at Craven (average age of 30, according to the college president) are no less deserving of their own voice than those at any other college or university.

We presume the best of intentions on the part of the private publisher in this case; the company’s actions suggest a real interest in ensuring students at Craven have access to a meaningful journalism experience. But, as it has been proposed by college officials, we see no way that this partnership is either constitutionally sound or ethically appropriate.

If a student newspaper is to remain a student newspaper, it must be edited by students, with students (not college officials or professional editors) having the final say over all content. Unfortunately, Craven administrators have thus far refused to accept that the U.S. Constitution prohibits them from interfering with or demanding approval of the Campus Communicator’s otherwise lawful content, no matter how much they may disagree with occasional choices that students make. The motivations of college officials and the climate in which this so-called “win-win-win” agreement is being proposed are suspect from the beginning. Unlawfully taking content control away from student editors and giving it to a third party is no solution.

Students, particularly the student journalists who are most affected, should be meaningfully included in any talks regarding a change in the running of the newspaper. So far, the college has negotiated the terms of this agreement without student involvement and the editors’ views have been disregarded.