Trying not to forget: Keeping memories of censorship alive tough with constant newsroom turnover

It has been five years since Kansas State University administrators firedthe adviser of the student newspaper, alleging it had not printed enoughcoverage of diversity events. It has been five years since DailyCollegian editors Katie Lane and Sarah Rice filed a suit against KansasState claiming the Manhattan, Kan., school violated their First Amendmentrights. It has been five years, and most journalists who edit and work in theCollegian newsroom these days do not even know it happened.

In the collective memory of an ever-changing college newsroom, five yearsis a long time.

“I was editor my last semester, and by that time there was just ahandful ‘ less than 10 people ‘ who had been there at the sametime,” Rice said. “By the time I graduated there was barely anybodyleft that would even remember the initial incident.”

Constant staff turnover may be a fact of life at student publications, butit puts student journalists at a disadvantage when facing censorship and otherconflicts. In the Kansas State case, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appealsruled in 2007 that Lane and Rice did not have standing as plaintiffsspecifically because they were no longer students. In relying on graduationrather than the First Amendment, it was a high-profile conclusion that mirroreddozens of smaller student media conflicts that get swept into the cracks betweensemesters.

Mark Goodman, the Knight Chair in Scholastic Journalism at Kent StateUniversity and former executive director of the Student Press Law Center, saidit is important to recognize this as a weakness of student newsorganizations.

“Because you’ve got student editors who turn over every year,or in some cases every semester, you do have challenges that are not confrontedby publications with staffs that remain for much longer,” he said.

It was not until University of Northern Colorado MirrorEditor-in-Chief Christina Romero happened across court documents in her officefiling cabinet last summer that she learned the details of lawsuits filed byformer Mirror editors in 2004. But those editors had her and otherfuture-editors in mind when they sued the student government for open meetingsviolations and the board of trustees for approving a 40 percent funding cut forthe Mirror proposed by the student government.

The Mirror won both cases ‘ the resulting agreement means thenewspaper now has a contract directly with the university for its funding, andStudent Representative Council members have open meetings law training everyyear.

“We knew that the changes needed to happen and it needed to be along-term solution, which is why that agreement was written the way itwas,” said Heath Urie, who was the incoming editor-in-chief when thelawsuits were filed.

Romero told section editors about the lawsuit, but she said it is notsomething she tells staff members unless they ask about it.

“The Mirror fought for its freedom in order to provide UNC thebest information available, not to gloat about being right,” she said inan e-mail.

Urie said he is glad to know the lawsuit still has an effect, though heunderstands the memory will fade as each year’s editors leave theircollege years behind.

“I certainly hope they are remembering what happened when I was thereand are able to apply the results of that lawsuit,” he said. “But Ithink there’s just that reality that we move on from thosethings.”

It is a reality that challenges editors of the Daily Orange, thecompletely independent student newspaper at Syracuse University in Syracuse,N.Y. Former Editor-in-Chief Tito Bottitta has been gone for more than five yearsnow, but some of his ideas to strengthen institutional memory are still inplace.

Bottitta had only been top editor for a few weeks in the spring of 2002when the newspaper published a cartoon, intended to depict a robber wearing adark-colored ski mask, that some people at Syracuse saw as racist. A history ofracially insensitive cartoons had earned the D.O. the nickname”Daily Oppressor” among some campus groups. One cartoon depictingthe student body’s black president led to protests on the DailyOrange’s lawn the spring before Bottitta started at Syracuse.

“I remember being kind of shocked to learn, oh, that happened thesemester before I got there. That happened within months of my setting foot onthe campus,” he said. “I think the paper was sort of ashamed of it,so it wasn’t something they made a big a deal of or talked to the staffenough about.”

Rather than hiding the paper’s shameful moments, Bottitta created the”Don’t Do This” wall near the editors’ offices byposting mistakes and controversial content from the archives. Bottitta said thehope was that a young reporter walking by might stop and ask an older editorabout it.

“We wanted people thinking about those things when they were makingdecisions, and thinking the way our readers may well be thinking,” hesaid.

Bottitta also started the “D.O. Palooza” tradition, whichbrings D.O. alumni back to campus to lead seminars and tell stories fromway back when. It is one opportunity to talk to current students about thelessons of the past, Bottitta said, though he no longer thinks preventing futureconflicts is possible ‘ or beneficial.

“I still do think institutional memory is important,” he said,”but I actually think the experience of going through it is just asinvaluable.”

The Daily Orange’s independence means the staff is free tolearn and relearn those lessons without fear of university interference, thoughit also leaves them without an adviser or permanent staff member to help pass onknowledge. The adviser serves as the font of institutional memory at manyorganizations, Goodman said, and that is what makes the Kansas State ruling sofrightening: It suggests schools can get away with reassigning advisers forcontent-related issues.

In the wake of the Collegian adviser’s dismissal, CollegeMedia Advisers censured Kansas State ‘ the advocacy organization’smost drastic action against universities deemed hostile to student journalistsand their advisers. This is one way to prevent the conflict from fading away andmake sure something positive comes out it, said Kathy Lawrence, who was CMApresident at the time Kansas State was censured and now chairs the group’sAdviser Advocate Committee. When a conflict arises, CMA advocates try to workwith the university to develop policies more supportive of student media.

“Those advisers have often by that time moved on, but what we hope tohave in place is a structure that will protect future advisers and futurestudents,” Lawrence said.

Kansas State has worked hard to remove the censure ‘ rewritingstudent media bylaws, restructuring the board, gathering statements in supportof student media and generally strengthening the organization, Kansas StateDirector of Student Publications Linda Putney said.

“Those are all very positive things, and we’re glad we’vebeen able to do this,” she said. “But we’ve got bruises,too.”

A CMA censure is all that remains of a standoff at Le Moyne College, alsoin Syracuse, after a longtime adviser was removed almost four years ago. Theadministration cited poor quality and grammar errors, but Dolphin editorssuspected the decision not to renew Alan Fischler’s contract in fall 2005was in response to controversial content. In protest, they halted publicationfor more than a year.

“We were drastic from the beginning. We said we’re going tohalt publication and protest what you’re doing,” said AndrewBrenner, who was editor-in-chief at the time.

Finally, administrators commandeered the newspaper by disbanding thestudent group and reregistering it the following day with differentstudents.

“The student newspaper that had been put in place as theDolphin really just was press releases for the school. It wasn’t astudent newspaper,” Brenner said.

Current co-managing editor Michael Bersani admits that the Dolphinhis freshman year was more like a newsletter as the new Dolphin staffstarted from scratch.

“That first year was tough,” he said. “You look back atthe paper now and you sort of cringe a little bit.”

Since then, Brenner and all the former Dolphin staff members havemoved on, and Le Moyne has a new president, too. The alternative paper Brennerstarted, Lemocracy, still publishes, though much of its original passionleft with its founder.

After working at the Dolphin since his freshman year and seeing thenewspaper improve each year, Bersani said he plans to step down from the toprole next year so no progress is lost in the transition to new editors.

“We’re careful that once we graduate as seniors the paperdoesn’t fall flat on its face,” he said.

Shawn Ward, vice president for student development at Le Moyne, said thecollege would certainly like to get the censure taken away, but it is not easilydone. He said the last time Le Moyne reached out to CMA they were told thecensure would not be removed unless Fischler was reinstated as adviser, so therehave not been efforts recently.

But students working at the Dolphin now are satisfied and thenewspaper is prospering, Ward said, so the censure no longer accuratelyrepresents student media at the college.

“It reflects an incident that occurred historically,” Wardsaid, “but looking at the contemporary situation and looking forward, itdoesn’t reflect what we’re doing or where we’regoing.”

It is still a painful memory for Fischler, who said it has not been thesame teaching at Le Moyne since then. He has rarely looked at a copy of theDolphin since it resumed publishing. Brenner, too, said the conflict lefta stain on his college years and might have influenced his decisions to pursuepublic policy in graduate school rather than journalism.

“It’s true colleges can just wait students out. At the end ofthe day they have far more power than students ever would, especially at aprivate school,” Brenner said. “That being said, though, Idon’t think students should just give in.”

At Kansas State, the ongoing lawsuit was still a cloud hanging over thenewsroom when Collegian Editor-in-Chief Sheila Ellis started reporting asa freshman in 2005, the fall after Rice graduated. Ellis was routinely assignedto cover the Black Student Union and events she said might not have been coveredin past years.

“I noticed I was getting a lot of the BSU stories ‘ a lot ofthe stories they weren’t covering in the past,” she said. “Andironically I was the only black reporter.”

Tired of getting pigeonholed for the “black beat,” Ellis quitreporting. She was approached by administrators about starting a separatepublication for minority students, but Ellis said that seemed like running awayfrom the problem instead of fixing it. The lack of diversity coverage was anongoing problem at the Collegian long before the conflicts that led tothe lawsuit, Ellis said. During her sophomore year, she discovered an old KansasState alternative newspaper printed by black journalists for two decades.

“They felt like they needed to do something because the studentnewspaper didn’t have any of their viewpoints in it,” Ellissaid.

Determined to finally overcome that history, Ellis started a group forminority students pursuing media careers, and brought along a diverse group ofreporters when she returned to the Collegian.

These days most staff members have no knowledge of the formereditors’ lawsuit, Ellis said. CMA plans to remove the censure againstKansas State soon, and the Collegian journalists have moved on.

“It’s not really something that we talk about very much becauseit’s really not relevant anymore to us,” Ellis said. “Most ofour staff writers and reporters have no idea, or have no knowledge of whathappened because it doesn’t really affect us.”

Former adviser Ron Johnson, who worked at Kansas State for 19 years beforemoving to Indiana University as the director of student media, said theimplications of the court case should worry student journalists. He said thereal test at Kansas State will not come until the Collegian is againconfronted about its content ‘ maybe not this semester or the next, butsomeday.

Rice said it is a shame current and future Collegian staff memberswill not feel connected to the paper’s alumni the way she did when lettersand support poured in from past editors during the lawsuit.

“We felt like we were part of a bigger organization just because wehad all that support from people who had been there before,” Rice said.”I feel bad that those at the Collegian now probably won’thave that.”