Student journalism is fucked (or is it?): Associated Collegiate Press Conference tackles censorship issues

From the Associated Collegiate Press Con panel "How to handle controversial topics," featuring Jeff Fish, current Editor-In-Chief of the Suffolk Journal and employee at the Globe's Metro Desk. Photo by Angela Bray.

During the first week of March, thousands of journalism students descend upon a single hotel for a weekend full of panels and discussions at the Associated Collegiate Press Conference. City dwellers meet nowheresville residents. Panelists talk about journalism and its future -- a sour subject, since the medium has seen an extreme fall in advertising rates this year.

Though we've seen student journalists arrested for covering protests, taking photos of police officers, or even being asked to resign for publishing stories against the wishes of their school administrators, they're still here, frightened and nervous.

Rich Cooch, campus editor for Sierra Nevada College's student paper the Eagle's Eye, admitted that 80 percent of the stories they'd like to publish can't due to eventual administrative censorship. Paranoia among school hierarchies might be damaging the psyches of student journalists across the nation.

Mike Hiestand, consulting attorney for the Student Press Law Center, believes that school administrators feel threatened by student press.

Then again, "that's the thing about censors, you're not quite sure why they're acting. I think, especially at the high-school level, it's more of a power trip," said Hiestand. After 20 years of service at the SPLC, Hiestand decided to leave the organization this year to pursue "exciting ventures."

Inside the latest SPLC Report, a letter states "It is inconceivable to think of a Student Press Law Center without Mike Hiestand's upbeat voice on the hotline, where he has given individualized help to some 15,000 students and educators in his time with us. But starting June 30, we will have to try."

Hiestand, well versed in the First Amendment, spoke about legal cases which reworked Freedom of Press within schools, the prime example being the 1988 Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which decided that censorship is allowed if the school felt that the article was "poorly written" or "inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order."

While only dealing with middle and high schools, a 2005 decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the case of Hosty v. Carter, stated that Hazelwood was the starting point for the analyzation of college censorship. (Massachusetts, check out what applies to you.)

"That's the whole problem -- [Hazelwood is] beyond grey," said Hiestand. " ‘Inconsistent with the shared values of a civilized social order'? I mean, every term that's in there is loaded -- what's civilized? What's a social order? Really for that to be apart of a first amendment standard, it's just night and day for what first amendment law had been."

When Hamline University, outside of Minneapolis, recently came under fire for hiring and then dumping a would-be executive-in-residence without telling him, blame fell on the newspaper, the Oracle. David Hudson, advisor, and Anne Kuenzi, the editor-in-chief, spoke at the conference discussing their blown-out-of-proportion situation and what others can do if they experience something similar.

Keeping a long story short, Minnesota's gubernatorial runner-up Tom Emmer was a Republican running on a platform of pro-life and the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, according to his campaign website. Acting on rumor and premature opinion, The Oracle went ahead and published that Emmer had been hired.

That weekend, they learned from another source that the former Minnesota House Representative hadn't formally been offered the position, but had just attended a meeting. What was apparent is that the school had never wanted anything published about Emmer in the first place. The Oracle published their retraction. According to a letter from Emmer, he was sure that he had been hired. According to the President of the University, he hadn't.

Emmer accused the school and the Oracle of lying.

With a soured relationship between the paper and the administration, the incident worsened, as newsmedia scooped the story.

While they were just trying to do their job and inform their community about their own school's decisions, they became the story themselves. Emmer and school officials called for the articles to be taken offline, something Kuenzi was very much against. The articles are still available but it seems that the website hasn't been updated since.

If administrators at schools across the country are trying to limit access, even censoring articles they don't like, is it truly "educational"?
Some students are ignoring stories that might prove controversial.

"We knew when Hazelwood was handed down that there would be self-censorship taking place," said Hiestand. "I regularly talk with college [newspaper] advisors who have told me that it upsets them. They feel that they are probably the most radical voice in the newsroom, the 50 or 60 year old advisor. They say that the journalism students who are coming up, Hazelwood has cleansed them. They just don't know what journalism is, why it exists, and what their role in it is. [Self-censorship] has been a problem."

College newspapers give students the hands-on experience needed to transition into the industry. They make sure each respective community stays informed on the issues affecting them.

"On a college campus, really, that's where free speech should bloom. You can't really have an education without free speech," said Hiestand.

Not being able to passionately pursue stories leads to laziness.

"All these people are on Twitter, social media; their computers are connected all the time," said Patricia Sainz de Rozas, photographer for the Eagle's Eye.

"Journalism should not be through Facebook and Twitter," said Cooch. "It's supposed to be through reputable sources. I'll tell you what takes out a human aspect, you can tweet out a question and have your responses be your article, that's what passes for journalism these days, and that fucking sucks."

"Instead of getting your information from a website, go and get the interview," Sainz de Rozas said.

Newspapers need to be online for greater exposure.

"I predominately use online media but I do like print media because of the feel, the touch, of looking at something nice in my hands," said Andrew Dunning, sports editor for the Eagle's Eye.

Most schools can still hit the ‘kill' button on newspaper websites immediately.

"We had a decade where people took advantage of this new medium and, as always is the case, we had this instinctive need to clamp down on that," said Hiestand. "So, we'll see how it pans out." 


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