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When Is It OK For University Administrators To Intervene With A Student Publication?

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(Image via University of Illinois Library (A. Stangl)/licensed under Flickr Creative Commons)
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Last October, a CSU Dominguez Hills administrator directed that the 12-page online issue of The Bulletin, the university’s student newspaper, be taken down after offensive words on its cover led to outrage from students and staff.

When Is It OK For University Administrators To Intervene With A Student Publication?

Within an hour of the issue going out to the university through a link in an email, CSU Dominguez Hills students and staff — it’s unclear how many — urged faculty and university leaders to act.

“The racist and xenophobic slurs that were on the cover were extremely harmful, and we wanted to prevent more harm from being done,” Timothy Caron, the interim dean of the College of Arts and Humanities at CSU Dominguez Hills, told LAist by email.

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“No one from within our campus community has criticized or challenged the decision to take down the October issue, including The Bulletin student staff,” he said.

Federal and California law limit how school administrators and faculty can step in to change the content of student publications. To do so is censorship, but the recent case of The Bulletin at CSU Dominguez Hills is not clear cut.

Student Media Needs To Be Independent

Did Caron censor The Bulletin? Southern California college media advisers have mixed views.

“In my opinion, it appears to be a case of censorship,” said Walter Baranger, the former senior editor for news operations for The New York Times, who is now the faculty adviser for The Daily Titan, the student newspaper at Cal State Fullerton.

Baranger read the LAist story about The Bulletin and said he continues to have some questions about what happened, but he believes Caron should have approached The Bulletin’s editor-in-chief to talk about the slurs on the cover and to offer possible solutions.

“The actual technical matter of taking it down off the website should have been left to the students,” Baranger said.

Some Published Language Is Not Protected By Law

“[The cover] doesn't break any legal rules,” said Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel at the Student Press Law Center.

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There would need to be significant riot-level campus disruptions, he said, for the words to fall into the category of unprotected speech. And the words are not obscene or libelous.

“Being offensive is still generally going to be protected,” he said.

Administrators at CSU Dominguez Hills say The Bulletin’s adviser, Joel Beers, was responsible for publishing the words. Beers came up with the idea for the cover and suggested the words that caused the controversy, although it’s unclear if some students saw the cover before publishing and didn’t speak up in time.

“It's not censorship if the students want it removed and it's not censorship if the students didn't create whatever is being removed,” said Sharyn Obsatz, a journalism and media professor at Santa Monica College who’s advised college newspapers on and off since 2001.

But Obsatz agrees with Baranger that a major problem for The Bulletin is that student journalists didn’t appear to be empowered to make the content decisions at the newspaper. The adviser is like a sports coach, she said, giving advice from the sidelines but never stepping in to play the game.

Caron said time was of the essence in his decision to remove the issue. Advisers say stopping and talking about an important decision could have opened up other options.

“[Students] could have removed part of the special issue and reposted the rest of the issue,” Obsatz said. None of the articles in the 12-page edition have yet been published online or in print by the student paper.

Centering student decision-making is part of student media’s role as an incubator for student learning, according to advisers and national student media groups. The learning experience is stripped when students are not in charge.

“I know that in this case… [the slurs were] a really hurtful thing for my community. I don't think it should be censored,” said Katheryne Menendez, recent editor-in-chief of The Corsair, the student newspaper at Santa Monica College.

“I think that if anything, it should serve as a reminder to everyone really what happens when students aren't at the forefront of student publications,” Menendez said.

CSU Dominguez Hills made changes to improve journalism education in the aftermath of the publishing of the October cover.

“Reporters [at The Bulletin] have more creative freedom now,” said Brenda Sanchez Barrera, The Bulletin’s editor-in-chief, via text. She said editors are more involved in the creative process than before, including layout.

College media remains an important introduction to journalism. And many college newsrooms, such as those at CSU Dominguez Hills, Santa Monica College, and CSU Fullerton, are becoming more ethnically and racially diverse. Using best practices in these newsrooms, advisers say, should help lead to more accurate and nuanced reporting in professional newsrooms.

How Student Journalists Can Assert Their Independence

Threats to student media independence typically come from administrators suggesting or telling students not to write about particular topics or asking students to let administrators know what they’re publishing and acting to stop publication. That’s called prior restraint. And the courts have said that’s a violation of free speech.

We asked advisers what student journalists can do to exercise the independence of their campus newspaper. It's worth noting: The Bulletin has represented itself as an "independent editorial voice representing the students of CSUDH," and still encountered interference, but advisers say that it's important to make that assertion nevertheless.

Here was their advice:

  1. Have a written policy about the publication’s independence.
  2. The editor-in-chief should make final decisions on content.
  3. The editor-in-chief should be on the only one with the online passwords to publish.
  4. Train advisers on media independence, and on how advising is unlike editing.
  5. Tap into media organizations and networks like CMA, SPLC, ACP, SPJ, NAHJ, AAJA, NABJ, and ONA where journalists can talk about independence, media ethics, and other important issues. (Membership is also often free or heavily discounted for students.)

State And Federal Laws Protect Independence Of Student Journalism

Journalism is a battleground. Part of it has to do with its pivotal role in disseminating facts and shaping public opinion. People threatened by the facts push back.

Like professional journalism, student journalism has had its share of high profile court cases testing its independence.

Here are some of the cases and laws student journalist should know:

  • The 1969 Tinker decision established that student speech is protected unless it causes major disruption on campus school or invades the rights of others.
  • But in 1988 the Hazelwood decision gave high school administrators power to censor teen pregnancy and divorce stories in a student publication.
  • California’s Leonard Law protects students at public higher education campuses from disciplinary action if they engaged in protected speech

While there is much more case law available to study, the gist, advocates say, is that college journalism needs more protections. In 2016, a committee with representatives from the American Association of University Professors, the College Media Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship, and the Student Press Law Center said it's increasingly common for student papers and their advisers to be challenged by campus administrators:

Administrative efforts to subordinate campus journalism to public relations are inconsistent with the mission of higher education to provide a space for intellectual exploration and debate.

Some student journalists see beyond the contention around journalism and are excited by the prospect of writing the first draft of history.

"Someone needs to record the history of today," said Spencer Otte, editor-in-chief of CSU Fullerton’s The Daily Titan newspaper, "so they can use this stuff in future classes.”

What questions do you have about higher education?
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez focuses on the stories of students trying to overcome academic and other challenges to stay in college — with the goal of creating a path to a better life.

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