The Bill of Rights may grant newspapers the freedom of press, but does that apply on college campuses? A campaign from the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) is working to enact legislation to protect students’ right to print, in light of the recent controversy at a small university in Emmitsburg, Md.
Mount St. Mary’s University, a Roman Catholic school, was the subject of national news headlines when their student newspaper, The Mountain Echo, revealed the shocking details of their president’s plan to increase student retention rates. President Simon Newman was reported to have urged faculty to encourage lower-performing students to drop out of college early, prior to federal student retention statistics being taken.
This notion received poor reactions from the school’s professors, prompting Newman to argue, “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies…put a Glock to their heads.”
The Washington Post and the paper’s editorial team found that the students were “operating on solid legal and journalistic ground,” doing their job as press to expose the truth in a controversial situation.
Despite the article’s validity, shortly after the publication was released, the newspaper’s adviser, a tenured law professor and former trustee, had his employment terminated without a proper hearing.
Additionally, the students were told they were in violation of the Mount St. Mary’s Code of Conduct. They were scolded, and threatened with expulsion “for having dared sullied the reputation of Mount St. Mary’s University by publishing previously tight-lipped information,” according to managing editor Ryan Golden.
Their punishments were regarded nationwide as direct threats to the freedom of press on campus, prompting the SPLC to push harder for their countering movement.
A 1988 Supreme Court decision allowed administrators to censor student speech and press, if the concerns were “reasonably related to a legitimate pedagogical concern.” This decision opened the door for restrictions of press on campuses. To combat this, the SPLC wants to enact, “comprehensive educational legislation that will benefit students at each stage of their development,” meaning public and private colleges, and even high schools, “while recognizing the differences between each educational environment.” They are calling their proposed bill the “New Voices Act.”
“If we’re going to ask students to fulfill the responsibility of being front-line newsgatherer, the least we can do is send them out into the field with the confidence of meaningful legal protection,” said SPLC executive director Frank D. LoMonte.
Tim Tai, a photojournalist who struggled to document the University of Missouri protests last Fall, agreed.
“For years, student reporters have been treated as second-class journalists, and that’s a shame, because they are often the only ones tackling crucial issues in schools and on campuses,” he said.
The “New Voices Act” is being pushed at the state level, and has already been introduced in 18 states. Six, including Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Washington, already have bills in their state legislatures. The bills have passed the committee level in Missouri and Washington.
The Association of Washington School Principals have argued against the legislation, saying, “The school district is the publisher and therefore should have some control over what is published, just like a [professional] publisher would with their editors and reporters.”
But, like in the situation at Mount St. Mary’s, the goal of the student newspaper is to expose problems in leadership, and, according to LoMonte, “A free and watchful press can’t exist under threat of institutional retaliation…no matter how hurtful to the institution’s reputation.”
“Student journalism is not always going to result in the fun, short stories,” Golden agreed. “I implore you to consider that, though change may be needed at [Mount St. Mary’s], this does not mean that all changes should go unquestioned or unpublicized.”
That said, Golden pledged to allow all sides the opportunity to speak up — “an offer that the Echo has always been happy to extend.”
Wall Street Journal staff reporter John W. Miller offered words of encouragement to the Echo staff, and student journalists everywhere, in a letter to the editor.
“Sometimes we [as journalists] annoy, but if we’re accurate and fair, the result is that the governments, institutions, companies, and people we cover are made to hold themselves to higher standards of character, clarity, and honesty, to the benefit of society,” Miller wrote. “It is a righteous and useful mission.”
“We will continue to serve the truth, and we aim to continue promoting the excellence of the university we call home,” Golden said.