Grambling State University implements prior review

After a semester that saw Grambling State University administrators shut down and reinstate the student newspaper, the student editor in chief says the weekly publication’s operations have resumed without conflict, and now wonders if the paper’s battle was all “for nothing.”

Citing concerns about the newspaper’s content, Grambling State Provost Robert Dixon shut down operations at student newspaper The Gramblinite in mid-January.

The newspaper was reinstated by the end of the month with review by a faculty adviser prior to publication, which was later removed following complaints from student journalists and free speech advocates.

Since then, Gramblinite Editor in Chief Darryl Smith says that “everything has been running smoothly.”

“The stories we have come up with this whole semester have been original,” Smith said. “We haven’t had any problems with publishing the paper.”

But the student journalists’ ability to publish comes only after administrators started the spring semester with a strong-armed attempt to take control the newspaper’s editorial operations.

In a Jan. 17 memorandum sent to faculty Publication Director Wanda Peters, Dixon wrote that the newspaper was suspended for the remainder of the month or until administrators were satisfied that better “quality assurance” was in place. Dixon also stated that he wanted mass communication instructors to assume a greater role in the paper’s production.

Smith said in January that Dixon told him the paper had been suspended after negative stories that upset Dixon.

Smith said he complied with the suspension to protect the two newspaper advisers’ jobs, which he felt were threatened by the administration.

“It’s an issue where we want to fight for the First Amendment, but at the same time we don’t want to see two advisers lose their jobs,” Smith said.

Smith said that in a meeting with Dixon during the suspension Dixon told him that administrators believed they could suspend the paper’s production based on the 2005 Hosty v. Carter decision. In that decision, the Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that limited freedom of expression rights applicable to high school newspapers could be extended to college campuses.

But the Hosty ruling does not apply to The Gramblinite, as Louisiana is part of the Fifth Circuit.

Smith said Dixon also justified the suspension because students use state-owned equipment to produce the paper.

Courts at both the state and federal level have held that the First Amendment forbids almost all censorship of student-edited college publications, regardless of whether the equipment is owned by the school. In the 1975 case Schiff v. Williams, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recognized strong free press protections for college student newspapers and rejected acts of censorship based on concerns about “quality.”

After The Gramblinite’s shutdown on Jan. 24 gained attention from area media outlets, less than 24 hours later, Dixon met with Gramblinite editors, who were allowed to resume publishing the newspaper with new guidelines — and a catch.

Smith said he looked forward to new measures such as a new copy editing course and workshops with faculty.

But the university also imposed a measure that required a faculty adviser to review all content before it was to be published.

College Media Advisers Inc., a national organization of student media advisers, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Student Press Law Center immediately criticized the administrators’ actions.

“No faculty or staff adviser to the publication should be asked to engage in such censorship or be held responsible for the content decisions student reporters and editors are legally authorized to make,” CMA said in a statement released Jan. 26.

Student Press Law Center Executive Director Mark Goodman called the prior review “clearly unconstitutional.”

“University officials may say that it’s only to catch grammar and spelling mistakes, but before you know it the unlucky employee forced into this position will be editing things out that reflect the university or its administration in a less-than-positive light,” Goodman said. “That’s the end of journalism and the beginning of propaganda.”

Smith said that with the support of local media and national advocates, he issued a formal request with Dixon’s office to have the prior review policy revoked and for the university to adopt a policy that protects students’ freedom of expression.

Not only did Dixon remove the prior review policy, but he also scrapped the other recommendations, such as the copy editing courses and workshops, Smith said.

“They basically said all of the measures have been thrown out,” Smith said. “We wanted a copy editing class and we wanted the mass communication faculty to help.”

“It’s like we went through the suspension for nothing.”

Smith said he remains concerned that the university has not adopted any policies regarding student free expression rights.

“I think they really want this to die on its own,” Smith said. “If you let it die on its own without any rules or regulations put in place, it only leaves the door open for it to happen again.”

But for Smith, who said he will graduate in May, the process of having The Gramblinite suspended and reinstated by the Grambling State administration affirmed with him that standing up for your beliefs can pay off.

“You’ve got to keep your head up against the university and keep fighting for what’s right,” Smith said.