Finding the key to press rights

If Andrew Seaman gets his way, he will beone of the last editors to run the Wilkes University student newspaper,TheBeacon, without guaranteed freedomof the press. What makes this noteworthy is the fact Wilkes is a privateuniversity, and the school’s president, Tim Gilmour, is not required bylaw to give such freedom to the student media.

The First Amendment protects the freedomof the student press at public colleges across the country, but privateinstitutions operate under a different set of rules — they are not underthe same constitutional obligation to allow any type of speech or any freedom ofthe press on campus. With thousands of such private schools around the country,hundreds of thousands of students graduate each year from institutions that arenot required to allow them rights to free speech on campus.

The creation of the policy at Wilkes, aPennsylvania school, will mark a personal victory for Andrew Seaman, formereditor-in-chief of TheBeacon. The policy alsodemonstrates that free speech is possible on private campuses if students arewilling to work and administrators are willing to listen.

Importance of freespeech

It is a widely accepted factthat free speech is crucial on college campuses in order for students to get themost out of their educational experience.

The Supreme Court, in its 1972Healy v.James ruling, said, “… thevigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in thecommunity of American schools.”

Kevin Smith, president of the Society forProfessional Journalists, said free speech rights are crucial on any campus,private or public, because campuses should be a breeding ground forideas.

“If you go to a campus where freespeech is limited or even tamped out altogether, you’re being deprived ofan important element of your education,” Smith said. “That elementis the ability to interact with different viewpoints and the exposure todifferent ideas.”

He said not having an exposure to a widerange of ideas and points of view makes the college experience less desirable.


Seaman said he said hehopes the success he has seen will motivate others to fight for similar rightsat other private schools.

“The student media at WilkesUniversity will operate as designated public forums, and free from censorshipand advance approval of content,” the proposed policy at Wilkessays.

The policy also says the university isresponsible for protecting the freedom of expression of students, so they may bebest prepared to live as citizens in a democratic society.

“This isn’t so much aboutWilkes,” Seaman said. “It’s more about helping private schoolstudents around the country by showing that it’s possible to get somethinglike this passed at your school.”

Seaman said students at Wilkes have beenfortunate in the past because they have not had administrators recently try tocensor student publications, but he realizes not all private schools areequal.

“Even if you don’t haveproblems at your school now and you have an open, cooperative administration,it’s important to get something like this passed to basically guaranteethat support and cooperation for the staff and students to come,” Seamansaid.

How it isdone

Free press rights require a fewkey ingredients in order to become a policy at a private institution. And, asSeaman found out, it is not always a quick or easy process.

First, he said it is important to be wellconnected with faculty members. He said in order for a person to make a change,they will have to work with staff members and administrators, all the way up tothe president.

“I think it’s important tomake it like a sales pitch,” Seaman said. “A lot of the peopleyou’ll deal with are in administration. They’re in the business sideof education, so they’re going to be concerned about getting students tocome to the school. They want it to be good for theadministration.”

Next, he said one of the most effectivethings students or advisers can do is make the idea appeal directly to theadministrators by letting them know their signature will cause them to beremembered as advocates of the First Amendment.

Additionally, Seaman said administratorsshould be happy about granting free press rights because it places the burden ofmonitoring content and producing a quality paper on the students. “Aselling point is that it actually takes some of the weight off of theadministration if something [upsetting] were to be printed,” Seaman said.

Tel Bailliet, director of student mediaand publications at Tulane University — a private school with a freespeech code — said from an administrator’s perspective it isimportant for students to focus on the educational opportunity andresponsibility that comes with free speech on a private campus.

“Sell the responsibilities thatcome with those rights,” Bailliet said. “The administration is alsogiving the students a list of what they expect — the responsibilities theywill fulfill.”

She said it is imperative to have somekind of free speech practice in place at the school in order to prepare thestudents for what they will encounter once they enter the workforce.

“We always talk about the realworld — well, that is the real world. You have freedom of speech,”Bailliet said. “And that’s the world in which they’re going towork and live. Don’t shortchange [the students].”

If First Amendment rights are going toexist on any campus, private or public, the SPJ’s Smith said it takes theactive involvement of faculty and students who are passionate about themarketplace of ideas that should exist on campus.

Obstacles tofreedomEven when a school doesguarantee free press rights for students, defending them can still be a battlefor those who want to exercise those rights. A free press policy, whilebeneficial, does not mean a school’s media outlets are in theclear.

Private schools that do sign pressfreedom agreements often give varying levels of responsibility and freedom tothe students. While many of them are close to guaranteeing complete FirstAmendment rights for student publications, they frequently include clauses thatgive administrators some restraint.

Tulane University, for example, hasoutlined extensively in its policy for student publications exactly whatfreedoms are granted to student media, and what rights are reserved for theadministration.

“Tulane students and journalistsmay enjoy all the rights afforded by the First Amendment of the United Statesconstitution with regard to the freedom of speech,” Tulane’s policysays. “However, these rights must not directly conflict with theeducational mission of Tulane University.”

Tulane’s policy also states theschool’s administrators are the controlling authority of studentpublications. Notre Dame, a privateschool in Indiana, guarantees student journalists are “protected fromarbitrary suspension and removal because of student, faculty, administrative orpublic disapproval of editorial policy or content.”

The school’s policy, however,contains guidelines on what types of advertising can go in the paper, andrequires student media to carry a prominent statement informing readers theopinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or studentbody.

From the administrator’sperspective

In order to get thesupport of the administration behind a student free press policy, it is helpfulto understand their perspective on the issue and potential hang-ups they mayhave. Private school administrators oftentimes have conflicting interests atplay when it comes to granting rights to student publications.

Reynold Verret, provost at WilkesUniversity, has been involved in the discussions on adopting the new policy atWilkes. He said while the school is fully in support of the policy, there are anumber of considerations private schools must make before simply signing awayfreedoms to the student media.

“We strongly support freedom ofspeech rights for the student paper, but we also see we have to be carefulbecause we are in the position of a publisher,” Verret said. “Ifthere were any case that were brought before a court, [Wilkes] could be heldliable as the publisher of the paper.”

Most private school administrators canappreciate the value of freedom of the student press, he said, but hesitate togrant complete freedom because they also have to protect the long-term interestsof the university.

“We have certain liability exposurea state school does not,” Verret said. “For example, if a personwere libeled, the university would be exposed. I and some of my colleagues areskeptical whether [a policy] would provide any strong legalprotection.”

But Frank LoMonte, executive director ofthe Student Press Law Center, said it is a common misunderstanding that collegesare legally liable for what students write in the student media.

“At the college level, it’spretty clear that a student newspaper is a platform for student views, like apodium or a bandstand that the school pays to construct. No one would seriouslythink the school is legally responsible for what a student says from a podium onthe quad, even though the college paid for it,” LoMonte said.

In fact, LoMonte said, the few liabilitysuits against colleges over the content of student media come out exactly to thecontrary — the greater the school’s intervention in the newsroom,the less likely it can disclaim responsibility for what is written.

Kathy Olson, associate professor ofjournalism at Lehigh University, another private university that does notrestrict student speech, said she can see why it may not be easy foradministrators.

“I understand the other side of thecoin as well, that you want to be able to protect students,” she said.”But these are university students. They need to be able to engage withpeople whose views they don’t share and take that on in a responsibleway.”

While Lehigh University has no writtencode guaranteeing free speech to the students, Olson said the administratorsknow it is important for the students to be able to have, and what the studentssay on campus is not synonymous with the views of the school.

“I would tell administrators toreally think twice about having your first move to squelch speech,” Olsonsaid. “It’s always a better idea to open up the debate and ask’what’s the purpose of this?’ It can be something that isreally valuable for the campus, instead of becoming an ‘us versusthem’ situation that you can’t win in the end.”

Bailliet said there are a number ofreasons why private schools should consider free-speech codes important. Shesaid, foremost, a code demonstrates the quality of education the school offers.

“I think that a school that issecure enough in its reputation, its education, and its students, is going tohave freedom of speech for its students,” Bailliet said. “I think aschool that has a repressive policy or no policy protecting speech … looksshaky. It doesn’t look like a solid, well-founded, well roundedschool.”

She said schools that are veryrestrictive of the speech of their students are more concerned about theirimages than about the quality of education they are offering.


Having a free press policyat a private institution is a great goal, but getting one signed is not the endof the road for those fighting for press freedom. A code will give studentsfreedom in what they can do with publications, but maintaining that takesdiligence and work.

As much as free speech agreements canhelp, Bailliet said, they are not perfect in guaranteeing student’s rightsto free expression on private campuses. “A policy is short of theabsolutism and certainty that can be found in a law,” she said. “Nomatter how good it is, it’s still not law.”

She said any policy is also a constantlearning experience for administrators and students, because administratorsoften have a hard time seeing content they do not agree with being published.She said students will need to be prepared to work continuously for the policyto be effective.

“[A policy] is as good as thespirit of the people who put it in place,” Bailliet said.”It’s almost more of an education for administrators at theuniversity than it is for the students. The students know the value of freespeech. The administrators sometimes need some reminding.”

Seaman said part of the problem isovercoming fear administrators often have about problems associated with freepress.

“I think the thing people will comeup against the most is that a lot of times the university presidentdoesn’t want anything to do with the newspaper,” he said. “Ithink the toughest thing for students to overcome will be to find a way toconvince [the administration] that a free press or a free media isn’tsomething to be afraidof.”