Free speech, student press focus of discussion at Newseum

The Student Press Law Center’s own Frank LoMonte joined free speech advocates and media experts at the Newseum’s Knight Studio on Wednesday for a discussion about student journalism, protests against controversial speakers and how attitudes of millennials are shaping free speech on college campuses.

At times, the event — called “The First Amendment on Campus: Freedom of Speech and the Press in Higher Education” and moderated by Gene Policinski, chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and a founding editor of USA Today — took the form of a debate. 

Jeffrey Herbst, CEO of the Newseum, criticized what he sees as a trend of millennials being intolerant of free speech and older conservatives coming to its defense. Herbst recently wrote a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education about a case in Washington state where members of the campus community called for a professor’s resignation following comments he made that some described as being racist.

John Wilson, co-editor of the American Association of University Professor’s Academe Blog and a free speech expert, said he disagreed with Herbst’s characterization of millennials as a problem for free speech or unsupportive of the doctrine of the First Amendment.

Turning the discussion to administrators, Catherine Ross, a professor of law at George Washington University, examined the actions and policies of schools that are not in compliance with the First Amendment. When teachers or administrators censor speech that makes the school look bad or that upsets people, schools lose teachable moments in which students can learn to deal with speech they don’t agree with.

The second panel of the event addressed concerns for student media, which often finds itself at odds with their institutions.

Hank Reichman, vice president of the AAUP, said that financial and editorial independence are especially critical, though many student publications do not have those guarantees. This independence allows students to learn their profession appropriately — with suggestions, but not requirements, from their journalism faculty and advisers — and serve their role as a watchdog on campus.

The panel also included a student journalist who was able to provide a first-hand account of how to uphold these principles. Courtney Rozen, editor-in-chief of American University’s student newspaper the Eagle, described the often difficult balance between being a member of a community like a college campus and still providing detached reporting.

LoMonte, executive director of the SPLC, prefaced his discussion about the worst abuses of the First Amendment with the qualification that in some cases administrators and faculty are not adequately trained. 

Nevertheless, he said, free, uninhibited student media is the best resource the campus has to shine a light on important issues, many of which employees may not be able to speak out against.