In light of recent censorship, national group takes a second look at HBCUs

Last January, the editor-in-chief at Florida A&M University’s Famuan was ousted from his position, forced to reapply and then denied the job. Then, in October, editors at The Gramblinite at Louisana’s Grambling State University found themselves in a similar situation, when two students were suspended from the paper, a decision that was quickly reversed after the situation gained national attention.

The two incidents garnered national attention and turned the spotlight on the often overlooked journalism programs and student publications at historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. While the incidents aren’t directly connected, they follow a pattern that’s been seen at other historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, says Errin Haines Whack, the National Association of Black Journalists’ vice president for print publications.

“It’s been different schools and it’s come from different places,” she said. “It’s frequent enough that it happens and you think ‘Here we go again.’”

Advisers and professionals who work with student newspapers at HBCUs say many, but not all, of the challenges their student journalists face are similar to those faced at predominantly white institutions. But some of the challenges are unique to HBCUs, they say.

Like most publications nationally, HBCUs across the nation have been hit hard financially. At HBCUs, financial problems have been exacerbated by declining enrollment that has further limited the amount of student fee money available for campus publications.

And moreso than their peers at predominantly white institutions, student journalists at HBCUs must contend with a history of journalism that has not always portrayed African-Americans fairly. That history can make some administrators and students apprehesive of and even hostile toward student media.

Budget concerns force greater dependence on schools

A look into HBCU journalism programs by NABJ in 2004 concluded the programs were significantly underfunded. Ten years later, those problems, particularly involving finances and censorship, haven’t gone away but rather have become more prevalent, Haines Whack said.

Christina Downs, a former editor-in-chief of The Hilltop at Howard University, said her paper has faced significant financial shortages. During the 2012-13 school year, her staff wasn’t paid until February of the spring semester due to budget shortages, and the paper stopped publishing its print edition temporarily because of the funding issue. Downs, a former Student Press Law Center intern, graduated from Howard in 2013.

“It was difficult to even hire people because I knew this had been a problem in the past,” Downs said.

She praised administrators for helping the paper raise money to print once she brought the issue to their attention but said she thought the problem shouldn’t have occurred.

“I don’t think think it was a matter of people wanting to stop the press,” Downs said. “I think we just weren’t on the priority list in terms of funding.”

Darren Martin, the editor-in-chief of The Maroon Tiger at Morehouse College in Georgia, said enrollment issues are responsible for his newspaper’s financial issues. The paper is funded partially by a student activities fee, meaning that the university’s enrollment decreases have a direct impact on the newspaper’s budget.

“It creates a very, very stressful atmosphere for these HBCU newspapers,” Martin said. “It makes the organization as a whole kind of slow down.”

Financial issues were closely tied to controversy at FAMU. The paper’s publication schedule was suspended and then-editor Karl Etters was removed shortly after FAMU was sued for libel over a story that inaccurately named a student who the paper said had been suspended in connection with the hazing death of FAMU drum major, Robert Champion.

Valerie White, an assistant professor at the school who was director of the school’s journalism division at the time of the editors’ removal, defended journalism Dean Ann Kimbrough’s decision to suspend publication pending training for Famuan staff.

“We were trying to honor what the plaintiffs were requesting within the bounds of protecting the students’ First Amendment rights,” said White, who was tapped to advise the paper last summer. “We wanted to show them we do give students training, and (the libel suit) was what the catalyst was.”

A bad outcome in the libel suit, which is still proceeding, could cripple the student newspaper, she said. The paper’s funding from student government has been decreasing over the past few years. Last year The Famuan had to cut reporters’ pay, White said.

White dismissed the budgetary concerns at her school’s newspaper as any different from those facing most student journalism programs. She said the pay cuts aren’t detracting from her students’ goal to re-establish the paper as an example of exemplary student media.

“In old-school journalism, we didn’t get paid,” she said. “We did it because we liked it. If students said they wouldn’t work there unless they get paid, they don’t like journalism enough.”

Bruce Depyssler, who advises The Campus Echo at North Carolina Central University, agreed the budget problem isn’t unique among HBCU student newspapers but said it hits them particularly hard and has forced many to depend more on the university. The increased involvement of university officials in the newspaper — and student newspapers’ reliance on their schools’ continued financial support — can lead to problems like the situation at FAMU, he said.

After being replaced, Etters, now a reporter at The Tallahassee Democrat, told the SPLC he thought administrators’ decisions had more to do with a clash in ideas than finances, saying that he believed he didn’t fit in with FAMU administrators’ vision for the paper.

Depyssler said financial independence is one of the key differences between student newspapers at HBCUs and those at the nation’s largest institutions. He encouraged students at HBCUs to find ways to increase their independence.

“It seems (large university papers) kind of anticipated that there could be this contentious relationship between the administration and students and advisers,” Depyssler said. “So that’s something you have to look at.”

Relationships key to preventing censorship

In nearly all of the cases where students at HBCUs have alleged censorship, the issue has arisen following the publication of controversial stories — a common motivating factor not just at HBCUs.

But students and administrators at HBCUs can be more sensitive to negative coverage because of the way African-Americans historically have been portrayed in the media, which is often “unfair,” Depyssler said.

“African-Americans have gotten a raw deal from the press,” he said at the time. “There’s a sense of we don’t want our own press to be doing the same thing to us.”

The Campus Echo hasn’t faced censorship from North Carolina Central brass since the 1970s, but in recent years, several newspaper thefts have occurred following the publication of controversial stories, Depyssler said.

The first happened in October 2010 after the paper ran an unflattering piece about the firing of the business school’s dean. In that case, the paper’s racks were moved to obscure areas of campus, making it harder for students to find copies. The second theft took place after a front-page story, published a month later, detailed altercations between a sociology professor and two students. The professor had a small clique of student supporters, who staff believe took about 300 papers off the racks when the negative piece was published.

In the most recent case, a student reporter wrote a first-person piece in 2011 about a high school band director who had inappropriate sexual relationships with her and her friend before starting college. While the band director wasn’t named, he was easily identifiable after reading the story, which led to a police investigation and ultimately a conviction and prison sentence for the director.

“It turns out that the other girl was a student here,” Depyssler said. “She was still with him and she got her crowd to pull papers.”

What distinguishes those incidents from the sequence of events at FAMU, however, is how the university handled them, Depyssler said. The Campus Echo has been “lucky” to have university administrators’ support, he said.

“The university sent out a campuswide email saying, “We’re a free press and we don’t do that,’” Depyssler said. “The administration backed us up all the way.”

A lack of administrative support can lead to conflict between student editors and the university, as was the case at Grambling State several times over the past 10 years and, in the early 2000s, at Hampton University in Virginia.

The Hampton controversy began in October 2003, when Talia Buford, then-editor-in-chief of The Hampton Script, defied the president’s order that the Script to publish an administrative memo on the front page, which addressed a story in the paper about the university cafeteria’s health code violations. Buford printed it on page 3 but still included the article about the violations on the cover, which prompted administrators to confiscate the Script’s entire press run before students could distribute it.

The most recent The Gramblinite controversy pitted students against their adviser and the school’s office of communications over the newspaper’s coverage of the football team’s strike. Grambling State student journalists David Lankster and Kimberly Monroe were suspended for what adviser Wanda Peters said was a violation of the newspaper’s code of ethics.

In Lankster’s case, he was reporting on unsafe conditions for Grambling State’s football team, and to illustrate the story he tweeted photos of the football team’s locker room, which showed mold and mildew as well as holes in the ceilings and floor mats. Peters told Lankster, The Gramblinite’s online editor, the tweets were “opinion-based,” and she told the SPLC at the time she chose to suspend him after he engaged in a heated Twitter debate with Grambling State spokesman Will Sutton, who questioned the paper’s use of anonymous sources in some of its coverage.

Monroe, the paper’s opinion editor, was suspended for her role organizing a rally in support of the football team’s protest, Peters said. Peters did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story.

Lankster defended his and Monroe’s methods of covering the protests, saying he would likely report it the same way if given the opportunity.

“I just like being in the know,” he said. “I had a positive trustworthy relationship with the football team and with the people I was working with, and they were telling me how they were feeling.”

And there have been other censorship concerns at Grambling State concerning “negative” stories about the university. Six years ago, Provost Robert Dixon suspended publication for a month, citing an improper interpretation of the 2005 Seventh U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Hosty v. Carter. (Louisiana, where Grambling State is located, is in the Fifth Circuit, where Hosty’s ruling does not apply.)

Dixon was displeased with several stories in the paper that he said reflected negatively on the university, and he only allowed the paper to republish after deciding Peters must review all content before it went to press. The policy remained in effect until the recent controversy, Lankster said. Now, Peters will no longer perform prior review of the paper.

Hampton University assistant journalism professor Wayne Dawkins said that the state of the Script has improved since 2003 and that student journalists at the school have worked hard to both repair relationships with administrators but cover news aggressively.

In 2009, two Hampton students were wounded during a shooting by a former student on campus. The shooter was also injured, and the Script published a story after the incident, which said students were concerned about how to protect themselves. Dawkins said student reporters covered the incident well despite some administrative pushback.

“That’s out there in the public,” he said. “It would be very difficult for someone to say ‘Do not cover that because that makes us look bad.’ Difficult things happen on campus, but we’ve gotta look at the merits. Can the story be told? Can it be told in a balanced, fair, complete way?”

Dawkins said he routinely has many of the Script’s reporters in his classes, and he uses the prior controversies of the paper to impress upon them the importance of balanced reporting.

“I counsel them to look at this campus as not just the students but an entire community of students, faculty, support staff and friends of the university,” he said. “There will be a time where you’re at cross-purposes with the administration.’ They may not outright say ‘I don’t want you to run that,’ but there will be discomfort.”

Good relationships with administrators and advisers has been key to preserving student editorial independence at The Maroon Tiger, Martin said.

In October, the paper published its take on ESPN The Magazine’s Body Issue. The Maroon Tiger issue showed 30 students from Morehouse, Spelman College and Clark Atlanta University, who all posed nude and shared their accounts of fighting addiction, mental illnesses and abuse.

Martin said he and the editorial staff planned the issue for months, and Morehouse College administrators were always helpful throughout.

“I think The Maroon Tiger has always had some type of respect and trust within the administration that has allowed us to do what we wanted to and report what we wanted to report without a fear of censorship,” he said.

“But this semester we have a new administration, and it was a little scary. When there was anything that happened in the newspaper that administration might not have agreed with, we sat down with them. They may disagree but they said they would never censor us.”

Martin also spoke highly of the paper’s adviser, Ron Thomas, who also directs Morehouse’s Journalism and Sports program. He acknowledged that his relationship with Thomas was different than many of his editorial counterparts at other schools.

“He’s given us so much journalistic freedom and autonomy and we trust him, so if he says something shouldn’t run we listen,” he said. “He comes to some of the meetings and/or copy editing sessions, and we talk about the issues of objective reporting.”

The Grambling State debate went public about a week before The Maroon Tigerwas set to publish its body issue, which concerned Martin at first. But he said Morehouse has done well as protecting student expression in the paper and elsewhere on campus.

“My fear was going through the process, what if they change their mind (on publication) because of this?” Martin said. “It could get national attention and be bad just like Grambling, but it wasn’t.”

As a result of the most recent Grambling State controversy, Haines Whack said the NABJ is working on convening a student media council, which will “further examine the relationship between student journalists and administrators, explore how to increase independence and improve the state of student media and continue to raise awareness on those issues.”

“Bringing these two sides to the table — administrators and student media — so they can talk about what their issues are and what the challenges are … will be helpful for everybody,” she said. w

By Samantha Vicent, SPLC staff writer.