It’s easy to take for granted the fact that the Daily prints without any University oversight. Independence from administrative control is vital so that our content can maintain a sense of objectivity and responsibly assess University institutions. While the need for an independent student newspaper may seem obvious, the reality is that there are troubling events on other campuses that undermine these principles of objectivity that newspapers value so highly.

Kristen Juras, an assistant law professor at the University of Montana, recently took issue with the content of the university’s student newspaper, the Montana Kaimin (Sex Column causes controversy; First Ammendment issues raised, 03/11/09). Her problem was with the Kaimin’s sex column, entitled “Bess Sex Column.” Its author, Bess Davis, is the Kaimin’s first sex columnist, though newspaper editor-in-chief, Bill Oram, noted in his Mar. 12 article “Sex column adds to campus discussion,” the Kaimin is hardly the first student newspaper to add a sex column.

Juras called the sex column “embarrassingly unprofessional” and demanded action. She wants the Kaimin to establish written rules for hiring writers that would eliminate inappropriate content. If her demands are not met, Juras is promising to take the issue to the Publication Board, the Board of Regents and even the Montana legislature.

The Kaimin’s situation immediately raises several questions. The first is, “What is a kaimin?” (The newspaper’s website depicts the outline of a bear-like creature, but a Google Image Search of the word “kaimin” didn’t offer me any clues.)

Of course, the more relevant question is, “Who is this Juras person and what gives her the right to censor legitimate newspaper content?”

It may seem like an obvious fact of life, but Juras’s objections signal that at least some readers didn’t get the message – sex is an important part of college life, and ignoring it does a disservice to students. Ironically, Juras’s stated objection to the column is that it is not serving an educational purpose – but that is exactly what sex columns do. Across the country, sex columns offer practical safety tips about safe sex, birth control and reducing the risks of sexually-transmitted diseases. To say that a sex column serves no educational purpose isn’t just misleading – it’s flat out wrong.

Oram’s article in defense of the sex column sheds some light on why Juras would have such passionate objections to it. He explained that she is a member of the Christian Legal Society, which sued the School of Law in 2007 for denying funding to the CLS. What was the School of Law’s reason for denying funding? Well, according to Oram’s story, the CLS “does not allow gay students to hold leadership positions or even grant them voting rights.”

Instead of digressing into my argument for why no group could deny gay people voting rights and simultaneously consider itself “Christian”, I will merely take issue with Juras’s tactics. Does she have the right to disapprove of the column? Absolutely. Is it appropriate for her to express her dissatisfaction with the Kaimin’s editors? Yes – she is, after all, a reader, and any responsible editor should listen (and, when appropriate, respond) to feedback from readers. But should she attempt to bring legal ramifications upon the Kaimin’s staff for not complying with her (absurd) demands? The answer is an emphatic no.

Just because someone objects to a newspaper’s content does not mean the University administration, the Board of Regents or the state legislature has authority to step in and influence its editorial decisions. A student newspaper is only able to credibly examine its University administration as long as it remains independent of the institutions it covers. While banning a sex column from a student newspaper may seem like a minor issue, any infringement upon a student newspaper’s right to print the content it deems relevant to students violates not only the First Amendment but also the very foundations of ethical journalism.

And what happened at the Kaimin is by no means an isolated incident. The staff of the University of Oregon’s student newspaper – the Daily Emerald – went on strike last month after its Board of Directors appointed a publisher who had editorial control over the paper and who had not been approved by the students. The Board then went ahead and published its own version of the paper. The fact that this could happen to a student newspaper should only solidify the need to watch out for even the least egregious infringements upon editorial freedom.

While the burden of defending print journalism from unethical intrusions mostly rests with editors themselves, students also have a responsibility to voice their dissatisfaction with diminished journalistic autonomy. At the very least, all readers – and students, especially – should recognize not only the relevance of sex columns to today’s college students, but also the right for student newspapers to print them.

And if someone knows what a kaimin is, I’m all ears.

Robert Soave is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at rsoave@umich.edu.

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