Colleges take variety of approaches in overseeing student media

Friday, June 13, 2008

When the editor in chief of the Rocky Mountain Collegian wrote an editorial in September 2007 that directed the “F-word” at President Bush, he found himself at the center of a controversy. Colorado State University administrators then considered whether or not to punish J. David McSwane and the newspaper.

McSwane was charged with violating the Fort Collins school’s code of media ethics, which prohibits profanity. He was brought before the Board of Student Communications, the publishing board of all CSU student media, which is composed of students and faculty from the university. Though the board voted to admonish McSwane for his column, it also retained him as the Collegian’s editor through last May.

After the conflict, CSU reevaluated its relationship with student media and on June 3 announced that the Collegian and other student media would be separated from the school and turned into an independent, nonprofit corporation receiving a budget of $500,000 a year. CSU will also give $250,000 in transition funding this year and in fiscal year 2009 and will decrease that amount to $200,000 in fiscal year 2010.

“This reorganization follows a national trend toward large universities managing student newspapers and broadcast media through independent, non-profit corporations,” said Blanche Hughes, CSU vice president for student affairs, in a press release. “There are multiple benefits while continuing to allow students educational access and real-life experience.”

A student-press advocate agrees.

“Independent status for the student media at Colorado State looks like a positive step,” said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “By going independent, the student publications and broadcast outlets will be insulated from direct administration intervention into their content. As long as the university provides some transition funding as a safety net, there is no reason why independence should not succeed and provide a positive working environment for the students.”

The question of who controls the purse-strings for student media sets up potential for conflict over content. Public colleges exert different levels of control over student media from none at financially and editorially independent publications to managing student media as a teaching or laboratory publication. Most public college newspapers fit into one of five categories:

  • financially and editorially independent
  • funded by student government associations
  • university-funded and governed by a school-appointed advisory board
  • teaching/laboratory newspapers
  • owned by a corporate news organization.

“The model that has been the most successful is complete economic independence,” said LoMonte. “That’s the one that consistently produces the fewest amount of problems and the least friction between the newspaper and the college.”

However, LoMonte acknowledged the difficulties inherent in being an independent college newspaper. “Only a handful of newspapers are economically robust enough to sustain themselves,” he said.

Neil Alan Ralston, vice president for campus chapter affairs for the Society of Professional Journalists, also noted the scarcity of independent college newspapers. There are benefits and challenges to having financial and editorial independence.

“A fully independent paper will have clear editorial control over all content, which is generally (a) positive (thing),” Ralston said.

“From a legal standpoint, the main thing that changes when a newspaper goes independent is that there is no longer (the same) First Amendment protection for the writers,” said LoMonte. “The First Amendment protects you only from the government … . If a writer at a state-owned university has a First Amendment claim against the university, a writer at an independent newspaper doesn’t have that claim. They don’t have any legal remedy if they feel that their story … has been censored.”

Censorship of independent papers can potentially occur if the newspaper is governed by a non-university advisory board, creating a “source of potential friction,” LoMonte said. “If the board were an official university publications board, then the students would have a First Amendment claim if the board overruled editorial decisions. If the board is a nonprofit corporate board, then there is no ‘state action’ and no First Amendment claim.”

While LoMonte and Ralston agree that the most desirable model for college newspapers — in terms of student press freedom — is independence, both recognize that it is not the most common form of governance.

“The more common form is to have some sort of publications board,” said Ralston.

Though structure and responsibilities vary at each school, a student publications board is typically composed of faculty, students and administrators at a university. Boards meet regularly and vote on issues including funding and the selection of editors.

Ralston teaches journalism at Western Kentucky University where the College Heights Herald is overseen by a publications board. Ralston said the board “works very well here,” and cited two keys for a successful publications board.

First, he said, a board should contain a broad representation of students, faculty, administration and some news professionals. Second, “members of student publications board have to understand the importance of First Amendment rights.”

Colorado State’s Rocky Mountain Collegian was governed by a publications board at the time of McSwane’s anti-Bush editorial. The board had the option to censure him, but chose not to.

Ralston said, “the conflicts I see aren’t with boards, generally, [they are] with either administration or student governments.”

Another common form of media governance is through student government associations, which can be in charge of distributing funds to newspapers. But student-press advocates say that setup can cause problems.

“The structure that seems to produce the most conflict is the one where the student government acts as a conduit for the funding,” said LoMonte. “At the student government level, you are dealing with people who are younger … they are, relatively speaking, more prone to lash out at the newspaper if there is content that is critical of the student government.”

A conflict at Montclair State University in Montclair, N.J., highlights the potential for censorship when student governments control newspaper funding. Last January, the Student Government Association froze funding for The Montclarion after stories in the newspaper criticized the SGA for holding closed-door meetings.

The SGA voted in February to reinstate The Montclarion’s funds, but the university’s administration decided that the relationship between the two student organizations needed to change.

The Montclarion has come to the conclusion that its relationship to the SGA poses an unacceptable obstacle to a free press. I agree with the underlying principle that government and a free press must remain separate,” Montclair State University President Susan Cole told the Associated Press in February. She also announced that the administration had decided to find an independent source of funds for the newspaper and it would be separated from the SGA by July 1.

There are two other forms of college media oversight. Many universities choose to have “teaching” or “laboratory” newspapers, which are typically part of a journalism school and can be part of a journalism curriculum. Editorial independence varies from school to school.

The least frequent form of governance is corporate ownership of student newspapers. Gannett Co. Inc., a publicly traded media company that owns USA Today and almost 1,000 other publications, owns two student newspapers in Florida. The FSView and Florida Flambeau at Florida State University and the Central Florida Future at the University of Central Florida are both owned by Gannett.

Control over student media is a growing concern among organizations like the Student Press Law Center and the Society of Professional Journalists. According to the First Amendment Center Online’s research article on college newspapers and yearbooks, “no U.S. Supreme Court cases directly address the questions of administrative control over student-run publications at public colleges.”

Meanwhile in 2005, the full (en banc) 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled 7-4 in Hosty v. Carter that college publications are subject to “the Hazelwood framework” developed by the U.S. Supreme Court for the high school press in its 1988 decision Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. The Hosty decision, which applies in the 7th Circuit (federal cases arising out of Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin) conflicted with other courts that had assumed college journalists enjoy greater First Amendment protection than their high school counterparts. The Supreme Court denied review of Hosty in February 2006.

The 6th Circuit ruled en banc in 2001 that if student publications are classified as public forums, government entities are limited in the restrictions they may place upon the press. Administrators at Kentucky State University confiscated all copies of the 1994 yearbook The Thorobred. In Kincaid v. Gibson, the appeals court sided with the students, who had filed a lawsuit based on their First and 14th Amendment rights. The opinion said that, “the university environment is the quintessential ‘marketplace of ideas,’ which merits full, or indeed heightened, First Amendment protection.” Decisions from the 6th Circuit apply to Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan and Tennessee.

The Society of Professional Journalists is working to ensure that student publications become “designated public forums.” It has begun a “Campus Media Statement Program” through which it asks university administrators to sign a pledge making campus media a “designated public forum.”

Ralston calls the pledge an “insurance policy,” explaining that making campus publications public forums gives them a legal shield against administrative censorship. The program, which was originally marketed to students with the hope that they would ask their administrators to sign the pledge, has now been expanded to include direct appeals to administrators from the SPJ.

“One of the common problems is that at student newspapers where things are going OK, the editors often don’t think to protect themselves,” Ralston said. “That’s the best time to do it. When there is a problem, the administration is least likely to sign over a public-forum status.”

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