Humboldt State University newspaper distributes papers late after administrators raise concerns

CALIFORNIA — The student newspaper at Humboldt State University came close to censorship earlier this month, but cool-headed discussion between staffers and university officials prevented that.

The university president and dean of the journalism school asked The Lumberjack not to distribute print copies of a story in its Oct. 2 issue that identified victims of a recent stabbing incident, said Garret Purchio, The Lumberback’s business and advertising manager. One victim’s mother was afraid of gang retaliation, he said.

“They didn’t want to put anyone’s lives in danger,” Purchio said. “We weren’t taking this lightly.”

Editor-in-Chief Lorrie Reyes met with the dean and other student staffers for a discussion that morning. She said staff confirmed with police that no warnings of retaliation had been sent to family members or anyone else.

Dean Ken Ayoob said the students went the “extra mile” and performed due diligence in evaluating whether the mother’s concerns could prove true.

Ultimately, Lumberjack staff decided to distribute the papers, albeit a few hours late. Purchio and Ayoob had moved about a third of the print copies to a locked storage room during the discussions.

Purchio said he was concerned they wouldn’t be able to retrieve them, since the room was locked. Ayoob said that after conferring with the president, he unlocked the door and returned the copies.

“We do our best to respect the student newspaper and freedom of the press,” Ayoob said. The president’s office had offered to reimburse the Lumberjack the cost of the lost papers if they had decided not to distribute, he said.

In California, governmental agencies, such as public universities, can only impose prior restraint if they prove in court that there is “a clear and present danger or a serious and imminent threat” to a competing interest, such as preserving students’ safety.

The mother “never gave us a specific reason” as to why she thought the article would put her in danger, Reyes said.

Plus, The Lumberjack had already published the story online the night before. The victims’ first names had already been spoken by the athletic director and broadcast by a local news stations.

“So the names were kind of already out there,” Reyes said.

Ayoob said there has not been continuing violence after the distribution, at least to his knowledge.

“We were all trying to get our facts straight,” Reyes said. “I think the due diligence was made on everyone’s part.”

By Samantha Sunne, SPLC staff writer. Contact Sunne by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 123.