In recent cases, student media outlets aren’t just reporting the news — they are the news.
The media chaos stemming from last Wednesday’s editorial staff resignation of Red and Black, the independent student newspaper of the University of Georgia was just the latest in the battle for the rights of free press.
In Tennessee, one student newspaper is facing an uphill battle with school officials who are reportedly attempting to discourage them from covering news that doesn’t reflect a positive image of the university.
University of Memphis’ The Daily Helmsman had $25,000 cut from its budget for the upcoming school year, a loss of nearly 33% of its usual funds. The Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee said the decreased funding was part of an overall cut across the board for student activities.
Helmsman Editor-in-Chief Chelsea Boozer disagrees with that explanation.
“If some organizations wouldn’t have gotten significant increases, every organization could have received that same budget as the previous year, with money left over,” she said.
A few members of the Student Government Association (SGA), who are also on the student fees committee, told Boozer that the paper should be devoting more print space to press releases about campus-sponsored events and activities, Boozer said. She refused and said she believes the budget was cut as a result of that — or the series of stories she wrote that uncovered free-tuition benefits for SGA members.
“It’s an attack on free speech,” she said.
Each time Boozer said she requests public documents from the university’s legal department, it’s never pleasant. Boozer said she understands resistance comes with the job and expects more of it on a larger scale after graduation but the circumstances the Helmsman has encountered are unacceptable.
The university’s legal department did not respond to a request for comment.
In March, the Helmsman staff heard about a rape that had occurred on campus in November but was not reported by the university. Boozer said she and another reporter filed an open-records request with the university’s legal department but was told the report was protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
“It’s so difficult on campus when you have to get public records through our legal office — they know the law but several times they haven’t abided by it,” Boozer said. “It’s absolutely ridiculous that I would have to sit in a two-hour meeting with highlighted portions of FERPA and the Clery Act in my hand.”
The report was eventually released a month later after Student Press Law Center director Frank LaMonte wrote a letter, supporting the Helmsman‘s request.
The Helmsman is dealing with a smaller budget, but another college is dealing with no newspaper at all.
Citing an “ongoing dispute with the College of San Mateo’s administration over a First Amendment issue” the student newspaper, The San Matean will not be in production for the fall 2012 semester, according to a blog post on its official website published last week. The paper is produced by students enrolled in several journalism classes — all of which are cancelled this semester. The official reason is low enrollment.
The newspaper has been chronicling the clash with school officials for the last three years.
A 2009 editorial by The San Matean questioned the intentions of faculty and staff content reviews:
“The purpose of a student-run First Amendment newspaper is not to ‘reflect well’ on the campus. The purpose of a student newspaper is to provide campus news coverage and to help students to learn the craft of journalism. A large part of that learning is experiential, and includes making, and learning from, mistakes.”
A petition is circulating on Change.org to reinstate the classes.
Student journalists across the nation have been vocal about their support for freedom of the press and the importance of camaraderie among their peers and future colleagues.
“The actions of these University of Georgia students provided a much-needed reminder. Because this isn’t just about The Red and Black, and it’s not just about students,” Rebecca McKinsey wrote. “Prior review, censorship — anything that smacks of reporting that is anything other than independent should make any journalist uncomfortable.”
Boozer is concerned that student journalists who may not be bold like the Red and Black editors or aren’t confident in their familiarity with the laws and ethics associated with journalism might back down if severely pressured by university officials about content.
“It may spread to the point when papers aren’t going to be real news, it’s all going to be advertisements,” she said. “It’s important for everyone to stand up, not just journalists, for our right to free speech because readers have the right to get truthful, uncensored news.”
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