Missourian’s conflict policy conflicts with free speech

The blog J-School Buzz covers the Missouri School of Journalism. Recently, the blog’s then-editor, Kelly Cohen, was forced to resign from the Buzz because Cohen is also on the staff of the journalism school’s newspaper, the Missourian.

To understand what’s really wrong here, you have to understand a bit more about what the Missourian really is. It’s not a student newspaper. A student newspaper is one with student editors. Missouri has a real student newspaper, the Maneater.

The Missourian, on the other hand, has J-school faculty members as its editors. Missouri School of Journalism students contribute the content, which is then selected, arranged, and controlled by faculty editors. That’s not a student newspaper. That’s basically a professional newspaper, except all the reporters are underpaid. (Which is to say, basically a professional newspaper.)

But it’s not a professional newspaper, either. Not really. Because Missouri is a public school and the editors are public employees. And that poses First Amendment limitations on their ability to control the speech of students, particularly when that speech is outside the pages of the publication.

(As a side note, I’m aware that the Missourian is technically separately incorporated. We can have this discussion at greater length if you want to get into the nuances, but the short version is that the incorporation doesn’t remove it from its status as a public thing. The short version is that no governmental entity can do an end-run around the First Amendment by creating shell corporations run by public employees to engage in activities to the benefit of the public entity. Public employees making decisions to benefit a public entity are limited by the First Amendment, and the rubber mask of incorporation won’t fool anyone.)

Where were we? Right, a public university imposing limitations on free speech. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that the Missourian’s conflict policy was a legitimate, well-thought-out, not-totally-scummy conflicts policy. Let’s assume we think it’s a good idea.

Even if the policy was ethically valid, the First Amendment doesn’t let state employees impose rules that restrict student speech on the basis of ethics. The First Amendment doesn’t have a loophole that permits state employees to restrict speech if that’s how private employers would do it, or if it’s useful or expedient to the purposes of the state. Heck, if speech had to be ethical to be protected, most political primary debates would consist of a bunch of suits at podiums shrugging at each other.

If the Missourian can reconcile this policy with the First Amendment, I’m curious to learn how, and I’ll ask. In their defense, the Missourian started operations in 1908, and the incorporation of the First Amendment into the Fourteenth Amendment didn’t begin until 1925, so such a policy wouldn’t have been unconstitutional until, you know, the Charleston became a dance craze. That may feel like a long time in the city, but sometimes it takes a few years for news to travel.

But that’s almost not the point, because it’s hard to see how an organization edited by people who are full-time paid agents of the entity it most frequently covers, who also happens to be the biggest employer in town, could ever have a conflicts policy that isn’t a joke. I mean, how did the editorial meeting go when they created this policy at the Missourian? “Okay, now that everybody’s cashed their paycheck, NOW we’re going to be sticklers for journalism ethics.”

This is beyond merely having paid editors. Student editors have a First Amendment right to disagree with the institution. The faculty-editors of the Missourian may very well not, at least not on matters related to their employment. Which, of course, would probably include coverage of their employer.

And this isn’t even half of the questions I’ve got. If this is the biggest media owner in Columbia, isn’t this kind of monopolizing, anti-competitive behavior? If this rule is being used to gain a competitive advantage, isn’t that going to have some tax implications because this is more of an ancillary business than an educational activity? If these are really employees and not students, is it possible to get a J-school degree without taking these classes?

I’ll write more when I learn more.