Southern Methodist pulls story about transparency from newspaper's orientation issue

TEXAS — Students andadministrators at Southern Methodist University are at odds over the removal ofan opinion piece from The Daily Campus, SMU’s student newspaper.

Dean of Student LifeLisa Webb informed the newspaper last week that a column addressing a lack of transparency on theschool’s board of trustees was not fit for publication in the printedition.

Though The DailyCampus operates independently of SMU — receiving no funding from the schooladministration — this particular column was part of an orientation issue,mailed out to all incoming freshmen.

As part of a verbalagreement made in 2007, the student journalists are required to submit theedition to the administration for prior review. In exchange, the newspaperstaff receives a list of mailing addresses for members of the incomingclass.

Jessica Huseman, whois serving as summer editor in chief for The Daily Campus, said she was“shocked and disappointed by the decision.”

“It never even crossedmy mind that we wouldn’t be able to run it,” said Huseman, who authored thecolumn on board transparency. “Nixing an article about transparency is not onlya poor decision, it’s an extremely ironic one.”

Huseman added that thenewspaper has never been prevented from running a story in its orientationissue. She suspected that Webb’s decision was due to the fact that the column“spoke harshly about the school.”

In the mail-homeedition, the newspaper staffcompiled a series of lists addressing the “top 5 things to know before arrivingat SMU.”

Along with lists like“top 5 classes for freshmen” and “top 5 SMU celebrations,” Huseman decided toinclude a list on the “top 5 issues at SMU.”

She said she made thedecision “because we didn’t want students to get a distorted view of how theuniversity operates.”

Upon reviewing theedition before it was sent out June 3, Webb said she determined Huseman’scolumn “was not germane to the overall content in the issue as a whole.”

“The column spoke toan audience, but it didn’t speak to new students,” Webb said. “If a storydoesn’t hit our target audience, our agreement is that it won’t bepublished.”

Webb said she allowedthe four other “issues” that made the top 5 list — including a column on thelack of international students at SMU and a column on the absence of campusunity and pride — to be published because they “fit in with the issue’stheme.”

“It’s always beenclear that this issue is meant to be a collaboration between the students andStudent Affairs, where we talk back and forth about the process,” she said.

Though Husemanaccepted Webb’s decision with little protest, she soon decided to publish hercolumn on the newspaper’s website.

Had the staff goneforward with publishing the column in the print edition, it would not havereceived mailing addresses from the administration, she said.

“We wanted to show theadministration that they don’t have any power to control our online content,”Huseman said.

Huseman also wrote ablog post explaining the decision to publish online,arguing that “the student newspaper is not meant to be a public relations toolof the school or the board. It is meant to be a newspaper … We would becheating ourselves and our readers if we did not inform them of problemsin order that they might be fixed in an appropriate and proactive way.”

Daily Campus adviser Jay Miller — who is on the payroll ofthe Student Media Company, which also operates independently of theadministration — described the situation as a “non-issue.”

“The university has aright to control its mailing list,” he said. “It’s the administration’sprerogative to do that. I can’t put aside the agreement.”

Adam Goldstein,attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, agreed.

While Goldsteinacknowledged that the decision to remove the column was an instance ofcensorship, he explained that SMU was within its authority as a privateinstitution.

“I don’t think it’s aterrible, un-journalistic thing to come to the middle with the administrationthis one time,” he said, adding that the student journalists are “free to walkaway from the agreement whenever they want.”

And that’s exactlywhat might happen.

Huseman said therehave already been discussions about possibly eliminating the orientation issuenext year.

Ashley Withers, whoserves as editor in chief during the regular academic year, said she hopes the2007 agreement will be reexamined in the near future.

“Nobody who works forthe newspaper now was at SMU when the agreement was made,” she said. “Some ofthose rules need to be reevaluated.”

Though Withers is awayfrom campus for the summer, she said she fully supports Huseman’s decision topublish online.

Huseman said theonline version of her column is currently the publication’s most read articleof the summer.

Webb acknowledged that“whatever the students do outside of the first-year [print] guide is fullytheir decision.” She added that she “holds the student journalists in thehighest regard.”

Chase Wade, thenewspaper’s arts and entertainment editor, said Webb and the SMU administrationwere “not right to keep [the column] a secret.”

“I can’t say nobodysaw this coming,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that the students are being deniedthe basic right to be informed.”