CALIFORNIA — The president of Chapman University has apologized to its student newspaper for misleading statements made by the school’s public relations team about covering a fundraiser on campus attended by former President George W. Bush.
The Panther, an independent weekly student newspaper at Chapman, a private college in Orange, California, had known Bush would be on campus for an event this semester since June. Since it was a private fundraiser with each entry ticket costing $5,000, the news media was barred from the event.
However, a month before the event, Sheryl Bourgeois, Chapman’s executive vice president of university advancement, told The Panther it could be the sole media allowed in, but with conditions: no audio recorders, no photographers and Bush’s staff must review any article before publication.
The Panther published an editorial following the Oct. 9 fundraiser explaining why it didn’t attend, and why it would not subject itself to prior review.
“Words cannot begin to describe how unethical this is,” the editorial board wrote. “It goes against everything we swear to uphold.”
But on Oct. 12, Bush’s Chief of Staff, Freddy Ford, called the paper to say they weren’t to blame.
“It was an off-the-record event, but we did not request to see any article before publication,” Ford told the paper. “That is not something we’ve done or would ever do. We don’t play games.”
It was actually Chapman who wanted to see the piece before it ran.
In an Oct. 20 editorial titled, ‘Misled by our leaders,’ the paper wrote that “[t]here were multiple opportunities for Chapman to convey to us that it was them, not Bush, who requested to review our story before we published it.” The piece went on to say it was “absurd” that Bush’s office had to call to correct the narrative.
I know firsthand that prior review isn’t something that professional publications adhere to or bend to, so I thought to myself, why would a student newspaper do the same?
Louisa Marshall, editor-in-chief of The Panther, oversees a staff of about 30 students. She said regardless of who set the conditions, the paper would never agree to prior review, even if it meant losing unique access to a former president.
“It was a difficult decision to make in that we knew that this coverage would be something that no one else could have,” she said, but, “it was also an easy decision to make just because prior review shouldn’t be a thing in the first place.”
“I think of Chapman, or any university, as kind of a microcosm for experiences that students will have once they’re done with college,” she added, “and I know firsthand that prior review isn’t something that professional publications adhere to or bend to, so I thought to myself, why would a student newspaper do the same?”
Chapman President Daniele Struppa submitted an opinion column to The Panther on Oct. 21 titled ‘We were wrong and we apologize.’
“How this happened, and why, is probably not as important as the fact that I am now convinced that the university did indeed request The Panther for prior review of an article, in obvious conflict with the values we espouse,” Struppa wrote.
In an email, Chapman Vice President of Strategic Marketing and Communications Jamie Ceman conceded there was a miscommunication between Bourgeois and Marshall in the meeting a month prior to the fundraiser.
“[Bourgeois] explained that if Ms. Marshall felt compelled to write an article, she would have to send it to her office for review, as it would be included in the public relations office press packet submitted for approval by the Bush Office for release to the media,” Ceman wrote. “In doing this, she gave the impression that the Bush Office made the request for review and has since apologized for giving that impression. It was not intentional, and a result of interpreting the terms of the agreement with the Bush Office too literally.”
Ceman added prior review was not discussed between Chapman’s PR team and Bush’s office, and that Bourgeois has since apologized to Marshall and The Panther in an email for proposing the idea.
“The request to review the article was never discussed with the Bush team prior to the conversation with Ms. Marshall, and Dr. Bourgeois has since apologized to Ms. Marshall for making the request,” Ceman wrote. “At the time she felt she was accommodating our agreement with the Bush Office, but then realized it was an overreach and now sees she put The Panther in an untenable situation.”
Aside from this incident, Marshall said the newspaper has had a positive relationship with Chapman’s PR team. The school normally champions free speech on campus, so the school’s hypocrisy was duly noted by The Panther in its Oct. 20 editorial.
“Part of the reason we’re so disheartened over this situation is because of Chapman’s commitment to free speech,” the editorial board wrote. “Throughout campus, Chapman’s dedication to free speech is visible. On the website, a long, thought out statement is alive and well, dictating the school’s valuing of free speech. And Chapman was the fifth school to ever sign on to the Chicago Statement, a strongly-worded treaty that establishes and defines the importance of freedom of expression on a college campus.”
Given the event’s high price of admission, Marshall said she hoped The Panther could attend so students can know what’s happening behind the scenes.
“Unfortunately, it was an event that while it did raise a lot of money for the school and for scholarships, it was also an event that was primarily closed off to students,” she said.
It’s not uncommon for public relations officials and student journalists to clash over access issues.
“I think as student journalists, people in administrative power or power in general may think that student journalists are willing to bend the rules because we are still learning,” Marshall said.
Marshall’s advice to other student journalists dealing with prior review or other access restrictions is to remember it’s your constitutional right to ask questions and it’s okay to be critical of what school officials tell you.
“In my case,” she said, “the university told me one thing; it ended up not being true.”
SPLC reporter Joe Severino can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @jj_severino.
Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our occasional News Roundup.