Syracuse University’s commitment to free speech questioned by professors, students

NEW YORK — A faculty panel at Syracuse University last week partially overturned Chancellor Nancy Cantor’s decision to disband the school’s student-run television station.

But Cantor’s move has created a “bitter, emotional, very divided” debate on campus pitting free speech advocates against those who support Cantor’s decision, said journalism professor Charlotte Grimes.

Instead of disbanding the station, called HillTV, the panel said it could begin airing shows in February provided station managers fulfill a number of restructuring requirements.

Some students say the chancellor’s action and some provisions in the panel’s decision may chill unpopular viewpoints on campus.

Cantor disbanded HillTV in October after some students expressed outrage over an entertainment show modeled after “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” called “Over the Hill.” As reported in The Daily Orange, Syracuse’s student newspaper, the show included segments about “smelly Indian kids,” jokes about mentally retarded people and Cantor’s desire for “thick black sausage.” (See below for a link to sample clips.)

The show, which had been airing for less than a year over the Internet and on the Orange Television Network, made light of eating disorders, date rape and lynching, among other issues. Students began reacting to the show after The Daily Orange wrote a story about it titled “Your Student Fee…:HillTV’s ‘Over the Hill’ Prompts Re-evaluation of programming.”

More than 60 professors and staff in the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, for which Grimes teaches, wrote a letter to The Daily Orange condemning Cantor’s move to shut down the station. The letter said Cantor’s decision “damaged” free speech and free press values as well as diversity values.

And Grimes said the faculty panel’s decision, depending on how it is enforced, could institutionalize a censorship board that oversees the station. This could have a negative impact on preparing broadcast journalists for professional careers because “in the real world, we don’t have those kind of boards,” Grimes said.

The panel’s prerequisites include creating a “Committee on Cultural Competence” which will “assist the organization with matters of content, perspective and tone,” according to the panel’s decision.

“Those sorts of boards can quickly become censorship boards,” Grimes said. “That’s a terrific danger, particularly on a college campus where the administration feels entitled to interfere with student media.”

But Cantor has said she had an obligation to act because part of her job is to make sure that “all students, faculty and staff are treated fairly and with respect,” according to an article in The Post-Standard, a community newspaper.

In an interview with the Student Press Law Center, Cantor said she did not censor the TV station, but that she was merely enforcing the university’s conduct code. The faculty panel upheld Cantor’s determination that the TV station violated the conduct code because its material “threatened the mental health and safety of individuals and groups on campus,” according to the decision.

“With free expression comes responsibilities for being a part of a campus community,” Cantor told the SPLC. “We have codes of conduct….I don’t think it is beyond question to ask people who are in a diverse campus community to abide” by those codes.

Because HillTV is a student organization funded through student fees, Cantor said she was well within her right to shut down the station.

“Recognition of a student organization is a privilege, not a right,” she said.

But many at Syracuse, particular in the Newhouse School, said Cantor overreacted.

“Talk about a paternalistic, improper role for a chancellor of a university,” said Joel Kaplan, associate dean for graduate studies and a professor in the Newhouse School.

Kaplan, who said he tried to convince Cantor not to disband the station, said her decision sends the message that students at Syracuse are treated like high school students.

“We met with her right before she decided to do this and told her to ‘combat speech with more speech, don’t treat them like they are in high school,'” Kaplan said. “It was a raw display of power. Why not just let the students work it out?”

A Chilling Effect

Some student media leaders said the HillTV controversy has caused radical viewpoints to be suppressed on campus.

Jared Novack, editor in chief of The Daily Orange, said he has noticed that extreme views are less welcomed on campus now than they were two months ago. He said his newspaper monitors content to make sure it is not “insensitive towards race, sex, sexuality and so forth.”

But Novack said he was concerned with Cantor’s decision as well.

“I think 99 percent of the people on this campus understand that people were hurt and offended [by ‘Over the Hill’]. They had every right to demand action,” he said. “The question is, what were the appropriate channels of action.”

HillTV General Manager Rich Levy said in an e-mail that the station’s staff was happy with the faculty panel’s decision, calling it “the best outcome that we could have seriously expected from an appeal through the University’s judicial system.”

But he said everyone is going to be “very careful” about shows’ content when the station comes back on the air next year.

“Writer’s won’t just write the first thing that comes to their mind anymore, and producers won’t just rubber stamp the scripts that they receive,” he said.

As for the Committee on Cultural Competence, Levy said he would reserve judgment until he sees how it is implemented.

He said university officials have indicated to him that students would be able to form the various oversight boards the panel’s decision calls for, and that “it is my understanding that these boards will only be advisory.”

But Levy said it is a possibility that students could be scared to express unpopular viewpoints in light of the decision.

“Already I have heard of disclaimers being read before comedy events sponsored by other student groups on campus,” he said.

Grimes said many journalism professors are worried about a possible chilling effect.

“There are people on campus who are restraining their opinions for fear they will be tarred as right wingers, seen as racists, or worse, offending the chancellor,” she said. “That’s distressing at a major university. I do know there are other student media on campus who are quite concerned if they are the chancellor’s next target.”

Kaplan, who teaches a number of students that work for The Daily Orange, said he thinks the student newspaper is next on the chancellor’s list.

“Any complaint they had against HillTV they can make against The Daily Orange,” he said.

Cantor said the student newspaper prints articles all the time that she does not approve of, but she said she has never censored the paper. She would not say whether or not she would have taken action if the newspaper printed similar content to that of “Over the Hill.”

Novack, the paper’s editor, said he is not concerned about administrative censorship because of the paper’s independent status.

But he did say, however, that Syracuse feels “much more like a junior high school than a top tier university.”

Other private schools

Because Syracuse is a private university, administrators there do not have the same constitutional limitations in censoring student media that are found at public institutions.

Even though private university heads are not bound by the First Amendment, many respect its principles.

Enacted in 1975 by the Committee on Freedom of Expression, Yale University’s policy on freedom of expression is perhaps one of the most well-known uncategorical free-speech policies amongst the nation’s private institutions.

“The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable,” reads the policy, which was crafted by C. Vann Woodward, a history professor at Yale who chaired the committee. “To curtail free expression strikes twice at intellectual freedom, for whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views.”

Administrators at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., would never step in and censor the student funded, student-run television station, said Chris Carroll, who advises student media there.

Vanderbilt administrators “understand the dynamics of a vibrant higher ed community,” Carroll said. “It’s far easier to deal with the ugliness of some offensive speech and the aftermath and let it work itself out in a productive way than to be labeled as a heavy-handed, overreacting censor.

“With as much confidence as I could possibly suggest, I don’t think it would ever happen here.”

Carroll said that although he had not seen the show in question, he would have objected to the way the situation was handled regardless of the show’s content.

“If this was a violation of student conduct, they should have charged the students who did it and not the whole station,” he said. “The audience should have reacted and demanded [to the student station managers] that the show be removed.”

Grimes echoed Carroll’s sentiment, comparing Cantor’s decision to “shutting down ABC News because of some sitcom on the ABC network.”

Levy said the station has three departments and more than a dozen shows, and that each show operates independently. He said less than 10 percent of HillTV staffers worked on “Over the Hill.”

Carroll said when administrators at private colleges adhere to the principles of the First Amendment they are providing their student journalists with a more realistic, real-world experience.

“To set aside some ideas that you can’t discuss, it undermines the whole philosophy of a liberal arts education,” he said. “There’s a big scent of political correctness about the whole thing.

“They just robbed those students of the opportunity to make decisions and diminished their ability to learn. It’s impossible for students to get the full value of a student media experience if they don’t have the opportunity to make decisions about content.”

A need for restructuring

Carroll said although he disagreed with much of the faculty panel’s findings, he thinks an advisory board and a faculty adviser could be beneficial to the station.

Hubert “Hub” Brown, an associate professor of broadcast journalism at Newhouse, said more rules need to be in place to ensure that HillTV has freedom but is also responsible to its audience.

Brown is one of three chairs of the chancellor’s task force on student-run television, created after Cantor disbanded the station to look at ways of making student staffers more accountable.

His task force is scheduled to make its recommendations in February for a long-term reorganization of the station.

“We are charged with looking at the environment for student-run television and trying to find ways to administer this that puts it back in the students’ hands, gives accountability to students,” Brown said. “We are going to be looking around the country at all kinds of different structures to find the best practices and see how they will work at Syracuse.”

Brown said the faculty panel’s decision has nothing to do with what his task force is doing.

“There’s a lot of concern about the ramifications of a content board that would oversee the content of the station,” he said.

Brown said he does not see this as a free speech issue and that the incident should not be used to judge how community members view free speech at Syracuse.

“Students should be able to test the boundaries of free speech and say things that are controversial,” he said. “They are not free, and no one is free, to print and broadcast things that threaten the safety of other individuals. The contention here is that a number of things that were broadcast did.”

He said his task force will try to determine a “regulatory environment” that would look at how the station is managed on a day to day basis. But that does not necessarily mean the task force will recommend content regulations, he said.

Kaplan questioned Brown’s role on the task force as a conflict of interest because his wife works in the chancellor’s office and is involved with public relations for the university. Kaplan also said no faculty members from the Newhouse School were on the faculty panel that heard the students’ disciplinary appeal.

“They are so scared of anyone challenging what they are going to do,” Kaplan said.

Conflicting lessons

The campus has become saturated with different opinions on HillTV.

Letters to the editor have been pouring in to The Daily Orange on both sides of the issue.

Many forums on the issue have already taken place, and one forum today will discuss the limits of free speech.

Cantor said part of an education is “learning how to operate as part of a community.”

Some would argue the campus discussion is accomplishing just that.

But some professors and students at the school said they are worried about what this means for the future of free expression at Syracuse.

“You would think that a university that has one of the most prestigious media schools would have more concern over free expression and free speech than they have demonstrated,” said David Cole, an attorney for Foley Hoag LLP of Boston who helped advise the students through the faculty panel hearing. Cole is a Syracuse alumni who, as a student, worked on the university’s television station.

It is too early to tell what kind of effect the faculty panel’s decision will have on free-expression, said Levy, the station’s manager. But he said he plans to stick around to make sure the new guidelines are implemented “in such a way that respects the history and traditions of the organization.”

For their part, however, Newhouse professors are mostly united behind free speech and free press ideals.

“The disbanding of the whole organization in response to the ‘Over the Hill’ program presents us with a disturbing false choice: the choice between our value of diversity and our values of free speech and a free press. All three are necessary. Each needs the other to survive,” read the letter submitted by Newhouse faculty and staff to the student newspaper.

As for the possibility of Syracuse ever having a satire publication, which can be found at many private institutions including Vanderbilt, “it would be shot down in a second,” said Novack, the student newspaper’s editor.

by Evan Mayor, SPLC staff writer