From the Daily: Defending student journalists

Tuesday, October 6, 2015 - 7:28pm

The First Amendment protects professional journalists, alongside all other citizens, enabling them to print news freely without censorship from the government. Unfortunately, collegiate journalists at schools without independent papers are not afforded the same protections from their governing bodies: school administrations. Currently, there’s no legislation in Michigan protecting the freedom of the student presses from administrative censorship. Without a clear right to editorial freedom expressed under law, collegiate newspapers, in both public and private schools, are at risk of being taken advantage of by school administrators and others seeking to repress students’ free speech rights.

At Northern Michigan University, the newspaper staff's investigations into the administration and Board of Trustees’ actions resulted in the removal of journalism faculty adviser Cheryl Reed. The newspaper’s administrative board provided no clear reason for the removal. In addition to removing Reed as the faculty adviser, current managing editor Michael Williams was prevented from taking the position of editor in chief, even though he was the only applicant. Reed and Williams filed a lawsuit last month to defend their rights as journalists. Clearly, some sort of legal protection must be put in place to protect the free speech of college journalists.

A similar incident occurred at Butler University, a private school in Indianapolis, when the student newspaper faculty adviser, Loni McKown, was spontaneously removed and temporarily replaced with a public relations staffer from the university as an interim adviser. The Butler administration’s reasoning for McKowan’s removal cited her accidental forwarding of a confidential e-mail and her involvement in student editorial decisions. Even though students from the paper expressed their disagreement with the latter suggestion, the university still ousted McKowan as an adviser. Replacing a journalist with a public relations employee is an absurd action that limits the freedom of collegiate journalism. The administration acting for its own PR benefits at the expense of journalists furthers the need for protection of students that professionals have through the First Amendment.

According to the Student Press Law Center, only nine states have laws protecting students’ free expression, in varying degrees; additionally, two states have adopted student speech rights in their education codes. Of the nine states with legal protections, California’s 2006 law allowing First Amendment rights to be extended to high school and collegiate newspapers from prior review and restraint from their administration in both the private and public sectors, is the most extensive. The state of Michigan should adopt similar legislation to protect free speech of all student journalists and to ensure non-financially independent newspapers remain editorially independent.

The objective of collegiate journalism, beyond offering an outlet for students to be connected to their environment, is to act as a check and balance on the workings of school administrations. Without the watchful eye of the media, corruption may occur within the offices of high-ranking administrators. This combination of education and administrative oversight is a valuable resource for University communities to have. Administrators should welcome the challenge of being held accountable. Furthermore, just as student journalists shed light on managerial administrative misgivings for the student body, they also bring dishonest acts by students to the attention of those with authority.

Censorship of journalism harmfully affects the education of future journalists. If young journalists are not allowed to report freely, they will not properly learn and practice the ethics of journalism and therefore not be able to keep university administrators in check. Ensuring their freedom of speech through law is the only practical option to keep the college press free.