S.C. college paper under six layers of prior review, editor says

SOUTH CAROLINA — Theautomated operator on Benedict College’s phone service welcomes callers, sayingthe college is “a power for good in the 21st century.”

Samantha Norman would disagree. In fact, she said after therecent censorship dispute she’s lost a lot of respect for the college and thatalthough she plans to earn a master’s degree, she will not pursue it fromBenedict College.

Norman is the editor in chief of Tiger News, the student newspaper at the private, historicallyblack college in Columbia, S.C. — but has only managed to print two issues inthe past eight months.

The problem, Norman said, is the college’s prior reviewprocess, which delayed the most recent issue by at least two months. Norman said as many assix faculty members and administrators read over the paper before it can beprinted.

The senior in mass communications said she’s spoken toseveral administrators about the problem, but doesn’t think it’s helped. On thecontrary, a classmate warned her that if she continued fighting theadministration on the censorship issue, an assistant professor said he mighttake action against her.

College officials strongly dispute Norman’s claims.

Janeen Witty, vice president of academic affairs, said theclaim that herself, the newspaper’s adviser, a dean, an assistant dean, aprogram director and faculty members from the school of business are editingthe paper was “absurd.”

“She included me and some other people and someone from theschool of business, she’s absolutely incorrect. That was just absurd,” Wittysaid. “When she told me that, I had never talked to her,” Witty said. “Onceagain, this uncorroborated manipulation of information that she has conjured upis very problematic. It takes up a lot of time and energy to address thosekinds of things, but under no circumstance was it at that level. That was thebiggest problem with working with Samantha.”

Norman said she most recently spoke with Charles Austin,dean of the school of humanities, arts and social sciences, about the excessivedelays in publication.

“I went and I spoke with [Austin] and I just wanted to gethis view on things and where he stood,” Norman said. “He said he supported myeffort in trying to assist the paper and he wanted the paper to be consistentas well, but he stated that anything that comes from the department he has tosee it or get his approval.”

Norman said she’s not sure why it takes so long for theadministration to finalize the publication, but that she’s been told themistakes are just stylistic errors.

“He said when he looks at the paper, it’s not to control thecontent, or even for grammar, he’s looking for formatting,” she said. “I justexpressed to him that it’s holding up the process of the printing for so manypeople to see it.”

Austin declined to comment for this story.

Witty said there would be restructuring of the newspaperadviser’s position and that the review process should run more smoothly.

“As we took a look at the reason additional eyes were beingplaced, and we have had to make some adjustments there, the number of errorswas unacceptable,” Witty said. “We do have to have leadership at the adviserlevel, which may very well lead to changes so that that can be insured withoutadditional eyes being placed on the paper.”

Norman said the college’s administration will not back awayfrom prior review and told her that students need to have faith in the reviewprocess. She said she decided to meet with Austin after receiving a strangemessage from a classmate.

“After this had started going on, a classmate approached meand said I need to wait until after I graduate to pursue trying to change whatadministration has in place,” Norman said. “They told me that [an assistantprofessor] had approached them and told them that if I continue with trying tostop what they have in place then he would do something that would potentiallymess me up for the next couple of years.”

The paper has struggled with the administration’s delayedcopy editing process since the start of the year, Norman said, but things grewworse after she was quoted in an outside publication.

“I attended a media conference and they tried to get a storyfrom us on first time comers to the conference,” Norman said. “I was quoted assaying the school was under financial turmoil. The school read the article andwas very unhappy with the article.”

Witty said Norman has failed to appropriately participate inthe discussion of the newspaper’s process, and this is a misunderstanding promptedby a lack of communication.

“The critical issue, however, is that student leaders whoare appointed to these positions have a responsibility for continued feedbackand interaction with the supervisors, her frustration in part was that shedidn’t get the answers as soon as she wanted to,” Witty said.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press LawCenter, said the college is treating its students like they’re less trustworthythan high school students.

“There are really two related areas of concern: the primaryconcern is that prior review has no place on a college campus, period. There’sno legitimate college publication that has to be preapproved by multipleadministrators before it gets distributed,” LoMonte said. “That isn’t even thepractice at high schools where at most one administrator might read thepublication. This is a college that is literally treating the students as ifthey are less trustworthy than the typical 15-year-old.”

LoMonte said the administration’s obstruction of thepublication has amounted to nothing more than a “pocket veto.”

“The second concern is a college can’t use the prior reviewprocess as a way to pocket veto a newspaper by sticking it in a drawer forweeks at a time. It’s not a newspaper anymore if it comes out two months late,”LoMonte said. “In essence, the college has killed off the newspaper withoutsaying so, because if you can’t distribute on a timely and reliable schedulethen you’re not a newspaper.”

College administrators will continue to work on ways toimprove the review process, Witty said.

“We’re very confident that this experience has led toadditional resolve on the part of all parties to adhere to the law and to workout policies and procedures that would be helpful to all parties involved,”Witty said.

Norman said she just wants a consistent publication forstudents and that they should be given equal working experience that othercollege journalists enjoy.

“I feel like the student body at Benedict College shouldhave the same opportunities of any college or even after they graduate and theygo into the working field they should have the same journalism workingexperience as anyone else,” Norman said.