Protect free student journalism

By Tim Miller

The paper that you are holding or reading on the Internet was produced by students here at the U of C. That seems a pretty self-evident statement, but it is important to remember that there are student journalists, even at a place like the U of C where there is no journalism school. Some might even say that the abundance of various student publications here on campus helps define our school’s identity. Student journalists provide news to the campus community and student publications exist as an outlet for the student body’s creativity. So there comes the issue of when a school’s administration ought to have the right to censor student publications.

Many such publications are not independent, which is to say that they receive money through their institution. One such publication, at Governors State University, 30 miles south of Chicago, was forced to shut down two years when the editors refused to let administrators from the university look over an issue before it was published.

Since the paper was not independent, printing was halted by the rebuffed administration. This occurred after the paper began investigating alleged improprieties such as grade inflation on campus.

Now the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals has taken up the case, and some are worried that if they rule against the paper it will seriously harm the integrity of campus journalism. This is a definite concern, and moreover it is hypocritical to expect student publications to live up to some standard set up by the administration, even when the administration is footing its bills. After all, student groups that receive university funding have often crusaded for controversial causes. In fact, debates of this nature fairly abound; a conservative Christian pro-lifer’s student activities fee money can, for example, go to support a pro-choice group, which has caused controversy in the past.

But one might argue that while a university can determine where students’ activity money goes, they shouldn’t have to support campus publications that are critical of the current administration. This argument falls apart though, given that many universities support student groups who try to change administrative policy on such things as sweatshops and academics. All of this is a vital part of student free speech on campus. Student voices are stifled without the ability to report on things that could be potentially harmful to the adminstration.

Certainly university administrators can refuse to fund student publications that they don’t like for whatever reason. But as explained above, this would severely curtail the right of free expression on campus. This is detrimental to the ideals of higher education, which is, first and foremost, supposed to foster independent thought and action. Additionally, most institutions of higher learning like to foster a sense of community, and part of being a responsible member of any community is speaking out when one sees injustices happening. Thus administrators and student journalists both need to exercise restraint and integrity.

And it is also important to remember that newspapers aren’t the only kind of student publication. One also has to look at such things as literary magazines and yearbooks, which also serve a legitimate and unique purpose on campus. There’s recently been a lot of debate about publicly funded art, particularly that which some people find objectionable. Obviously it behooves universities to not have their student publication filled full of obviously obscene work, but it seems to me that student editors must take responsibility for the content that they print. If the administration observes something really, obviously objectionable in a publication that they fund, then they can take action, but they should not assume a priori that students will not be able to handle publications.

I hope that the courts will do the right thing and recognize that college student publications need free speech protections, even those that are funded by their institution’s administration. This protection is not granted to high school publications, but students are given many more rights and responsibilities in college than they were in high school. While universities have a right to keep their image clean, this does not give them the right to selectively edit student speech.