Getting censored can be its own “mark of excellence”

One of the most common — and most insidious — rationalizations for censoring student publications is “poor quality.” It’s the last refuge for the censor who is out of excuses, because frankly, it’s always possible to find a blemish on even the finest journalistic work.

The idea that a newspaper needs to be “edited” or “proofread” by the college president or public-relations director for purposes of “teaching good journalism” has never stood up to the straight-face test. When was the last time the director of the college’s PR office told a reporter, “Hey, I bet if we file a couple more public-records requests, we can prove this corruption goes all the way to the top.” We all know why higher-ups with no journalism credentials insist on reviewing students’ news reporting before distribution, and it has nothing to do with teaching good journalistic practices.

This is why the results of the Society of Professional Journalists’ annual Mark of Excellence Awards, announced this past week, are specially noteworthy.

The MOE awards are among the most prestigious distinctions that a student journalist can receive, judged by professionals who — unlike college presidents — are trained to recognize good journalism when they see it. It is remarkable how many of this year’s winners did their exemplary journalistic work in the face of open hostility from college administrators bent on shutting them down. They include:

  • Brennan Stebbins, one of three MOE finalists for editorial writing, endured a gauntlet of escalating harassment from administrators at Missouri Southern State University that included a freeze-out of interviews with top administrators and the firing of a respected faculty adviser.
  • Karla Bowsher of Florida Atlantic University took first place for column writing with no thanks to her Boca Raton, Fla., college, which fired her adviser, tried to ban him from meeting with the students informally as a volunteer, and so thoroughly botched the search for a replacement that the students remain without a full-time adviser nearly a year later. (This censorship was an especially spectacular flop, because it also won a national MOE  finalist award for a nearby two-year college that wrote editorials supportive of the fired adviser.)
  • The staff of Southwestern College’s newspaper, The Sun — a winner for its breaking-news coverage and a finalist as best all-around paper — managed to put out one of the nation’s best college publications even though administrators did their best to stop the presses by ordering the paper to stop printing until a controversial trustees’ election was over. (The Sun is still thriving, but the bunker-bound president who tried to put it out of business is not.)
  • Reporters at The Broadside of Central Oregon Community College were named finalists for in-depth reporting on their student government — the same in-depth reporting that resulted in bogus disciplinary charges against a Broadside editor and a threat to the newspaper’s student activity fee funding.

This record of achievement pretty conclusively removes the “poor quality” fig leaf behind which censors so often retreat. These publications and advisers weren’t targeted for doing their jobs poorly — they were targeted for doing their jobs too well.

National recognition for these battle-scarred censorship veterans should be a source of comfort and encouragement for those struggling with hostile administrators and student government budget-writers. It is possible not just to survive a censorship battle without backing down, but to come away from it a better journalist. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, there is nothing quite as exhilarating as being censored and missed.