New Hampshire college journalists fight for press access on campus

NEW HAMPSHIRE—Despite administration stating there is not campus-wide requirement that all interviews go through campus PR, faculty and student journalists at Keene State College are pushing for a clearer press access policy.

With many students gone for the summer, Keene State College President Anne E. Huot said she plans to meet with the students and journalism faculty again in late August to continue discussing student press access.

The arrangement for a second meeting comes after a May 17 meeting between Huot and journalism faculty, which associate professor Julio Del Sesto said did not resolve the faculty’s concerns. Members of the journalism department presented Huot with a draft policy regarding how the college deals with the press, but Del Sesto said Huot did not sign it.

“She didn’t really look at it,” he said. “She pushed it back and said, ‘no, thank you.’”

Del Sesto said the department is pushing for a policy because students and faculty are afraid to speak to the press for fear it will affect their academic standing or jobs. This fear has prevented students from being able to complete their class work and has led to stories being incomplete. The department recommended four points as the basis for a policy:

  1. The Keene State College administration respects the First Amendment rights of all journalists on the Keene State College campus and is dedicated to supporting a free and vibrant press.
  2. The Keene State College administration, to include the office of Marketing and Communications, does not require journalists to ask permission for, or approval of, story ideas related to campus issues or interviews of students or Keene State College employees. In addition, Keene State College administration, to include the office of Marketing and Communications, will not ask to review questions prior to interviews and will not ask to review stories before publication.
  3. The Keene State College administration also respects the First Amendment rights of Keene State College students and employees who wish to speak with journalists without fear of reprisal. Keene State College students and employees do not need to fear for their jobs or academic standing if they choose to speak to journalists. Students and employees are not required to receive permission from Marketing and Communications or administration to speak with journalists.
  4. The Keene State College Marketing and Communications staff will not sit in on interviews between journalists and students, staff or faculty except concerning issues of the highest institutional importance.

Students wrote about this ongoing problem with contacting faculty and staff at Keene State in an editorial May 3. According to the editorial, the KSC Marketing and Communications Department most recently prevented students from telling the story of a staff member’s retirement, which exemplifies “a pattern of suppression and obstruction that has been building since Fall of 2015.”

Del Sesto said the restrictions began in Fall 2015, when a few events took place that reflected poorly on Keene State’s image. Because of this, he said, it seemed that the college began to clamp down on its interviews. Students have often been redirected to Director of Strategic Communications and Community Relations Kelly Ricaurte.

Executive editor of the student-run paper, The Equinox, Olivia Belanger said they’ve had problems in the past with getting interviews for a story regarding the nursing program being placed on probation and a new cheerleading coach. And when reporters are able to get interviews, there is often a member of the Marketing and Communications team in the room.

“It feels almost as if the answers are kind of scripted,” Belanger said. Additionally, “the PR director encourages them to ask for questions ahead of time, which is against our policy.”

The journalism faculty supported the paper’s editorial May 4 in a letter to the editor. The letter stated that journalism students encountered barriers in their efforts to inform the community effectively.

“As of this writing, there have been 20 documented instances of students being told by employees on campus they are not allowed to talk to student journalists, but instead, must contact KSC Marketing and Communications,” the letter read.

The local paper, The Keene Sentinel, said it also has faced problems contacting faculty and staff at Keene State.

“Reporters at The Sentinel routinely encounter the same restrictions, where college faculty and other officials won’t speak until given clearance by the communications department,” Ethan DeWitt wrote in a May 4 article regarding the Keene State dispute.

Ricaurte said there is not a formal policy in place, and she did not receive inquiries from faculty asking whether there was a policy in place that would prevent them from speaking to the media. To address these misconceptions, Huot sent out emails clarifying the administration’s stance on student press access to faculty and staff.

“Letting [media relations professionals] know that you’ve been contacted is a professional courtesy. It’s not a requirement. You are free to make that choice individually,” the email read.

Del Sesto said this has not been sufficient in reassuring faculty that they can speak to the press. He said when speaking with another professor, the instructor was unsure what she should do if asked for an interview.

“She doesn’t know what to do if she gets a request from the press,” Del Sesto said. “She doesn’t know if she should send them to her boss or [Ricaurte]. … It seems that everyone feels it’s necessary for everything to go through Marketing and Communications.”

Ricaurte said she thought the emails helped with some of the confusion on campus, but they will continue to discuss these issues with faculty and students in the fall.

“I think it’s really important for people to know that Keene State is committed to its students,” Ricaurte said. “We’ll continue to talk and work through this as a campus.”

Meanwhile, Belanger is preparing to enter her senior year at Keene State and her second year as executive editor.

“For now, we’re really just trying to make it known that we aren’t trying to be the bad guys, we’re just trying to make things fair, accurate and complete,” Belanger said.

She said she will be “very, very, very surprised” if any big progress is made during the August meeting, but she will continue to push for change and has faith that the journalism faculty will not settle.

“I’m a student before I am a journalist, so it’s kind of demeaning that our president can be so hateful toward us,” Belanger said. “But I am still going to fight for what’s right, and I just want to be able to do my job.”

SPLC staff writer Sophie Gordon can be reached by email or (202) 974-6318

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