NEWS RELEASE: Report spotlights threats to college press freedom, calls on nation’s colleges to end retaliation against journalists and advisers


December 1, 2016
Contact: Frank D. LoMonte, SPLC Executive Director or 202-785-5450

The American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), the College Media Association (CMA) and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) Thursday jointly released a report, “Threats to the Independence of Student Media,” calling on the nation’s colleges to address the problems of censorship, retaliation and excessive secrecy that imperil the independent news coverage essential for civically healthy campuses.

The report cites multiple cases in which college and university administrations exerted pressure in attempts to control, edit, or censor student journalistic content. This pressure has been reported in every segment of higher education and every institutional type: public and private, four-year and two-year, religious and secular.

The report finds that administrative efforts to subordinate campus journalism to public relations concerns are inconsistent with the mission of higher education to foster intellectual exploration and debate. And while journalism that discusses students’ dissatisfaction with the perceived shortcomings of their institutions can be uncomfortable, it fulfills an important civic function.

Among its many recommendations for improving the transparency of college campuses and providing a more supportive climate for student-produced news coverage, the report recommends curtailing the authority of campus public-relations offices to obstruct journalists’ access to decision-makers:

No postsecondary institution should require its faculty or staff to clear interactions with the student media through an institutional public-relations office, nor should campus public-relations offices obstruct student journalists from gaining direct access to those in positions of official authority. … Presidents and trustees should unequivocally instruct campus public-relations offices that their obligation is to facilitate maximum public access to records and interviews.

Henry Reichman, first vice president of the AAUP, said, “Academic freedom extends to advisers of student media who support the critical work of student journalists. It’s important to draw attention to these threats to student media and to work towards solutions.”

Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC, said, “It is hypocritical for colleges to claim they support civic engagement while defunding student news organizations, removing well-qualified faculty advisers, and otherwise intimidating journalists into compliance. Colleges are more obsessed with promoting a favorable public image than ever before, but a college that retaliates against students and faculty for unflattering journalism doesn’t just look bad—it is bad. We need a top-level commitment from the presidents of America’s colleges and universities to support editorially independent student-run news coverage, including secure funding and retaliation protection for students and their advisers.”

Joan Bertin, NCAC executive director, said, “This report exposes restrictions on press and speech freedoms on campus and exhorts college and university administrators to educate students in the operation of our constitutional system by allowing students to engage in its most critical functions: seeking information, becoming engaged and informed, and speaking out on matters of importance.”

Kelley Lash, president of CMA, said, “This issue impacts millions of educators and students. College Media Association emphatically supports the First Amendment freedoms of all student media at all institutions, both public and private, and agrees that these media must be free from all forms of external interference designed to influence content. Student media participants, and their advisers, should not be threatened or punished due to the content of the student media. Their rights of free speech and free press must always be guaranteed.”

The report notes reason for optimism that policymakers are awakening to the value of an editorially independent college press, including the recent enactment of statutes in Maryland and North Dakota that guarantee college journalists at state institutions the legally protected right to select the content of their own journalistic publications.

The report was prompted in part by a string of well-documented instances of the retaliatory removal of faculty advisers at college publications, including the 2015 firing of professor Michael Kelley at West Virginia’s Fairmont State University to punish him and his students for a series of front-page articles spotlighting unhealthy levels of mold in campus housing.