Well, here’s some great news to cheer you up: The American student press is under siege! Apparently, we’ve been too busy blowing gaskets over professor watch lists and “safe spaces” to recognize the actual biggest threat to free speech on college campuses today. According to a new report by the American Association of University Professors, in conjunction with three other nonpartisan free-speech advocacy organizations, a disquieting trend of administrative censorship of student-run media has been spreading quietly across the country—quietly, of course, because according to the report, those censorship efforts have so far been successful.
The report finds that recent headlines out of Mount St. Mary’s University, for example, may be “just the tip of a much larger iceberg.” Indeed, “it has become disturbingly routine for student journalists and their advisers to experience overt hostility that threatens their ability to inform the campus community and, in some instances, imperils their careers or the survival of their publications.” The report chronicles more than 20 previously unreported cases of media advisers “suffering some degree of administrative pressure to control, edit, or censor student journalistic content.” Furthermore, this pressure came “from every segment of higher education and from every institutional type: public and private, four-year and two-year, religious and secular.”
It gets worse. In many of the cases in the report, administration officials “threatened retaliation against students and advisers not only for coverage critical of the administration but also for otherwise frivolous coverage that the administrators believed placed the institution in an unflattering light,” including an innocuous listicle of the best places to hook up on campus. In many cases, the student publications were subject to prior review from either an adviser who reported directly to the administration or the administration itself.
Prior review means getting what’s in your newspaper signed off on by someone up top before it can be published. It is—to use the parlance of my years of professional journalistic training that began with my time as features editor of the Vassar College Miscellany News in the mid-’90s—absolute bullshit. (At public universities, it’s also illegal.) First, and most obviously, this is because a free student press is a hallmark of the American higher education system, and any threat to that freedom is on its face worrying. But there’s also this: The last thing we need right now, in the creeping shadow of American authoritarianism, is an entire generation of fledgling journalists who’ve come up thinking censorship is acceptable.
Breaking important stories (like this one on admissions at George Washington University, or this one about a sexual assault case at Northwestern University) certainly makes a complete case for the institution of student media. But preserving the frivolities associated with student-run newspapers and magazines is just as vital. The inside-joke-filled features, the small-time edginess of risqué content, the irate-student-group-demands-a-retraction scandal that is a microcosm of the bigger world of reporting and opining on controversial issues: These are what breathe life into student publications and passion for a free press into budding professional journalists.
My three years on the editorial board of Vassar’s weekly surely ran this gamut. There was the feature on heroin use on campus, complete with a diagram showing how to sterilize a syringe; there was the junior who stormed our meeting incensed that the headline “Student Convicted of Rape and Expelled” was not sufficient trigger warning for details of a sexual assault (and of a victim’s name, which was used with her explicit permission). We never heard a single word from the higher-ups. Then as now, in fact, it was students, rather than the administration, with demands to change our content. Indeed, as the result of the odd ill-conceived op-ed, or the accidental inclusion of a paid advertisement by an ovum donation company (whoops), the Misc., as we called it, was subject to outraged student “speak-outs.” But that was exactly the point—everyone got to speak out. Indeed, none of the five former editors in chief I worked with remembered a single instance when then-President Frances Daly “Fran” Fergusson subjected the Misc. to administrative reprimand, much less something as draconian as prior review.
The closest thing we got came in the form of a letter “from” Fran’s two omnipresent dogs—on the dogs’ personalized letterhead—gently reprimanding us for misidentifying their breed. (Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, not Cocker Spaniels.) And plenty of what we published made the school look bad either because the news itself was bad—rape, suicide, drugs—or because we’d written it badly (ahem). We had no faculty adviser, received no course credit, and certainly enjoyed a mixed reputation on campus, but we loved every second of it, and some of us even grew up to be (more or less) journalists.
The difference between then and now, of course, is the internet. Viral outrage—and chances are at least one of our foibles would have brought it—translates to fewer alumni donations, and that can pique the attention of the front office in a way nothing else can. It’s entirely possible that the shenanigans we got away with on our insular, 2,400-person campus in the ’90s were indeed only possible in a less-connected world. However, when I emailed Rhys Johnson, the Misc.’s current editor, he assured me the paper’s present-day relationship with the administration is still “quite peaceful,” and while he sometimes has to endure uncomfortable post-publication meetings with administrators, the newspaper under his leadership has never been subject to prior review or administrative censorship. I’d like to think that the Misc. represents the norm, and the disturbing cases the AAUP report chronicles the outliers. But as more universities gain success quashing poor PR from their student-run outlets—success that, by its nature, goes unnoticed by the public—the outliers may easily creep toward normalcy.
I understand that many American institutions are in constant funding crises, and all it takes are a few scandalized alums to halt construction of the new rock climbing wall. But if our universities are not instructing students in both the power and responsibility of a free press, they are putting not only the next generation of journalists at risk, but all of us.
There is little more frightening in a liberal democracy than a press under constant, vague threat of censorship by an authoritarian power figure. There is little more frightening, but there is something: a generation of journalists trained to submit to censorship without question.
If the trend toward restricting the American university press continues, that is what will happen, at exactly the hour in the American experiment when democracy—and dissent—need vigorous protection. When more than half of the people who voted for the president-elect already do not believe the media when we uncover that individual’s blatant, terrifying lies—when Nazi terminology for the press returns to use in his supporters, when those supporters wear T-shirts suggesting journalists be hanged—the idea of a new generation of journalists trained in simpering acquiescence to the powerful is among the more worrying in a litany of worrying ideas about the direction of the United States.
It’s not too late. American university administrations still have the power to put their own PR behind the survival of the republic and stop meddling in the student press. But it remains to be seen whether, in the coming years, universities will seek to distinguish themselves from a presidential administration that wants to destroy the free press—or act more in its image.