Archiving the past: One man helps preserve student press history

NEW YORK — Call him a collector, a compiler, even a pack rat. But whatever you do, do not call John Behrens a lawyer.

“I’m not a lawyer, I never wanted to be a lawyer and I’m never going to be a lawyer. My purpose is to offer people information … not to offer legal advice,” Behrens said.

Behrens’ job, as he would energetically tell you, is to serve as curator of the Student Press Archives at Utica College in Utica, N.Y. Behrens described the archives as “four large containers” that reside in the Frank E. Gannett Memorial Library at the college, but he quickly warned that looks can be deceiving.

“The Student Press Archives was founded with just 10 [student press] cases in 1967, from there we’ve moved to more than 1,000 cases and more than 5,000 users over that period of time,” he said.

If a student, adviser or even a lawyer is looking for a court decision, a brief, a dissertation or things of that matter involving the student press, Behrens can help. Using a “Dewey Decimal style” index, Behrens looks up the case, as well as similar cases, and sends copies to whoever is in need. 

“We’ve found [the archives] have been very successful,” Behrens said. “Lawyers don’t know too damn much about this and are constantly coming to us saying, ‘I’ve got this client … and I know very little about the [student press].’” He added that lawyers often use the cases they get from the archives in formulating new lawsuits.

Behrens said a large part of what he does is helping students, advisers and lawyers make connections between what is going on at their school and what may have happened elsewhere.

“We provide them with cases they didn’t know about. We provide cases that someone in Pennsylvania didn’t see because it happened in Washington,” Behrens said. “We have enough case history that I can safely say there are a lot of similarities.”

Making progress

Behrens said since the formation of the Student Press Archives in the 1960s, he has seen a rise in the confidence level of many student journalists.

“In the 1960s and 1970s there was a tremendous amount of fear on campus, not only about Vietnam but also about the fact that rights were being eroded in all kinds of ways. One of the big problems, we felt, was that students were obviously very apprehensive about their rights,” Behrens said.

Although the Supreme Court’s 1988 decision in Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier restricting the First Amendment rights of high school students was “a setback,” Behrens remained positive about the future of the student press.

“I think we’ve moved a long way, even with Hazelwood, toward having more dialogue,” he said. “I know there are some advisers who would disagree with me, but I think if you look overall at campuses and the student publications on those campuses today and you compared them to publications 39 years ago, I think you’d be impressed that we’re making progress. It’s slow, but we’ve made progress.”

Looking out for the adviser

The Student Press Archives can trace its heritage back to the National Council of College Publication Advisers, a group that later became the College Media Advisers, Behrens said. At the most, CMA gives Behrens around $750 a year. All additional funding he provides himself. 

Before he became involved with the Student Press Archives, Behrens worked as a newspaper adviser at different colleges. He said his experience with unhappy administrators got him interested in student press rights, adding that most of the requests for information he gets comes from advisers.

“It is normal for advisers [to contact me] because they are fearful of losing their job. They have probably been involved in the student publication in a way that they were a little worried about when they took the position,” he said. “Some of these positions are unpaid, so here’s an instructor who’s been told by their department chair ‘You’re also going to advise our student newspaper.’

“We try to help them see themselves in a more secure position, which isn’t easy to do since Hazelwood.” 

Requesting information

If a student, adviser or lawyer is looking for information, he or she needs to send a letter explaining his or her situation and what kind of information he or she is looking for to the Student Press Archives, Behrens said. He added there is a 25-cent charge per copy for anyone requesting information. 

Behrens said a typical file would contain original court briefs, attachments and newspaper clippings on the case from professional and student media.  He said the size of a file can vary dramatically depending on how much information he can find, adding that some cases have three or four items while others can have up to 500 items.

He could not think of one specific case he gets asked for more than others, but Behrens said that he does get a lot of requests for information about advisers’ responsibilities and the rights and responsibilities of student publications at private universities compared to those at public institutions.

“Our turn-around rate on requests is not fast … the normal time frame, if I’m just given a casual request, is probably about a month,” he said.

If someone is in urgent need of information, Behrens said he could make an exception.

CMA offers an extensive bibliography of the archive’s holdings through spring 1996 for $10, which is available to CMA members and others who are doing research, said Ron Spielberger, CMA executive director.

Behrens said he is looking to put the entire archive online but needs a grant to do so. 

“In discussing [the student press archives’] future needs with [Utica College] librarians and CMA, the estimate I see is about $10,000, which will enable us to put a large part of this onto digital format and, hopefully, transfer it to a Web site,” he said.

A lot of the information Behrens receives comes from advisers who send him free subscriptions of their newspapers. He said he gets 62 student newspapers a week and reads them all. He also receives information from journalism education groups, including the Student Press Law Center, which he estimated has given him about half of the cases in the archives.

He said last year he received 15 requests for information but said the number of requests varies from year to year. He said five years ago he received 125 requests, mainly from graduate students working on theses or dissertations about the student press.

Behrens retired in 1997 but has continued to teach a magazine writing class at Utica College. He said that student press issues would always be close to his heart.

“I believe in [the archive], I know we’ve helped people. The challenge is getting others to see there’s value in this,” Behrens said. “My purpose is to continue to help editors, staff members and advisers all equally in terms of the rights that some of them don’t know about and in other cases, just to advise them how they need to function in a world that obviously treats media in a totally different light than they used to.” n