Battling Censorship of Campus Publications

Daarel Burnette
March 8, 2005

The calls come in by the dozen each week at the Student Press Law Center (SPLC). Often frantic and seeking legal advice, student journalists and their advisers find their way to Mark Goodman, executive director of this nonprofit group that defends students? First Amendment rights.

Goodman, 45, has seen an increase in calls to the center about censorship over his 20 years there. High school and college papers also ask about freedom of information, libel, copyright and privacy issues, but censorship prompts more than a third of all calls.

And while censorship can occur at any college publication, students at historically black colleges might be disproportionately affected, Goodman said during an interview from his office in Arlington, Va.

?On many [black college] campuses, administrators are extremely sensitive to the public image of the institution because they have received so little respect for many years from the rest of the world,? he said. ?It really is a direct consequence of any organization that has felt beleaguered and unappreciated. They?re going to be more sensitive to criticism even when it comes from within.?

The Student Press Law Center doesn?t gather statistics comparing incidents at historically-black colleges with others, so Goodman?s observation is based on the center?s work in the last decade on behalf of newspapers, including The Script at Hampton University, The Spokesman at Morgan State University, The Peachite at Fort Valley State University and The Famuan at Florida A&M University. (See a list of historically-black universities that have contacted the SPLC.)

The overall increase in censorship cases might be a sign that more students are aware of their rights and are willing to do something about them, suggested Adam Goldstein, a new-media specialist among the organization?s nine lawyers and interns.

From 1993 to 2003, the last full year for which statistics at the Student Press Law Center are available, the number of censorship-related calls rose from 545 to 876. Additionally, in 2003, the center received 2,471 total requests for legal advice, and 38 percent were about censorship. In addition to students realizing their rights, Goodman saw two other possible explanations:

First, school administrators are focusing their energy on fund raising and starting to see their roles as that of CEOs. Therefore, ?They treat dissent as criticism and, like a CEO, they?ll fire people,? Goodman said. ?This doesn?t work when you?re running an education system. You have to model certain democratic values.?

The problem is, ?When you censor, everybody loses,? Goodman cautioned.

Because society is becoming more critical of the mainstream media, he added, the negative attitude might have trickled down to student media, inviting more attempts by student and university governments to control what students publish.

?As a journalism student, you feel like you?re fighting a giant all the time,? said Talia Buford, editor of The Script. ?It?s good to have someone in your corner to fight the battle with you.? Buford called Goodman in 2003 when Hampton University?s acting president confiscated 6,500 issues of the newspaper?s homecoming edition because the editors would not publish a letter from the acting president on the front page. The Student Press Law Center has supported the editors at the private, historically black university with legal advice and publicity intended to keep the news industry and the public focused on the newspaper?s rights.

Among the most difficult censorship cases, Goodman said, are those dealing with advisers being fired because of the content of the paper. Often, ?It?s legally permissible but you know it?s wrong,? he said. ?It?s very frustrating.?

One such case was that of John F. Schmitt, former adviser of The Peachite at Fort Valley State University, a small historically-black school in Georgia. The university had not renewed Schmitt?s contract in 1998 because of his refusal to censor the paper, which published articles that were critical of administrators. He sued and in 2002, won a $192,000 award, the largest of its kind. The settlement agreement included new guidelines to protect free speech and job security for advisers at The Peachite.

?Every time these cases come to the public?s attention and they?re resolved successfully, it continues one of the very principles our country was founded on, the First Amendment,? said Kathy Lawrence, president of College Media Advisers, a national journalism educators group. ?It?s the fuel that keeps this democracy humming along.?

Goodman hasn?t had 20 years of straight victory: A low point came in 1988, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier that high school officials with ?substantial and reasonable? cause could censor a public school-sponsored publication that is ?inconsistent with its basic educational mission.? The ruling does not apply to colleges, but some try to use it to justify their censorship attempts.

Over the years, the Student Press Law Center has developed strategies to fight back. Having frank discussions with school administrators about the students? rights can often lead to compromises or decisions that support student publications. Other times, it is necessary to embarrass a university publicly over its censorship.

Sometimes, as when 6,000 copies of The Herald were stolen recently by a fraternity at Arkansas State University, a newspaper just wants guidance. ?There needs to be a central place to get sound advice, particularly about legal issues,? said the adviser, Bonnie Thrasher. ?None of us are that familiar with dealing with it. The SPLC serves as that place.?

Goodman never expected to make a career of SPLC advocacy.

He grew up on a cattle farm in Versailles, Mo., where his father subscribed to eight newspapers.

While a journalism student at the University of Missouri, he got a scoop about a prostitution ring on campus. ?If you write this story, be prepared to go to jail,? a lawyer told him when he sought advice. As he was in the midst of applying to law school, he decided to drop the story.

?To this day, I regret that decision,? Goodman added. ?I would?ve rather gotten advice as to finding a solution for writing the story. Instead, this lawyer scared me off from doing the story.?

An internship at the Student Press Law Center gave him a chance to be the giver of advice, and paved the way to his future career. He became SPLC?s director in 1985 and it was his first job out of college.

?When I came here, I only planned to stay for two to three years, but it?s 20 years later and I?m still here,? Goodman said. ?Frankly, though, I don?t think I?ll ever find work more satisfying than this.?