A Quiet Crisis: Censorship Strikes the Student Press
By Jesus Rodriguez
In universities across the United States, students involved with their campus newspapers are urgently facing two kinds of pressures: If their newsroom is affiliated with the university, they might be struggling with intensified censorship from the administration. On the other hand, if the paper is financially independent, then student journalists generally must run a newsroom without any help from the university or from journalism professionals and ensure, with rising printing costs and pushes to go all-digital, that the company doesn’t fold.
The latter is what befell The Daily Campus, the independent student newspaper that had served Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, for nearly a century. After months of financial stress, the Student Media Company announced its dissolution in April, and the paper came under control of SMU’s journalism department. Despite a last-minute groundswell of financial support from alumni, the presses shut down in May. If the student editors agree to work for the new, officially sanctioned newspaper, it may continue to exist in a tamer form online.
In Gainesville, Florida, the financial doom of The Daily Campus struck a visceral chord with Melissa Gomez, editor-in-chief of The Independent Florida Alligator at the University of Florida (UF). She said the fate of SMU’s student newsroom “destroyed” her.
“We’re independent from our university too; we don’t receive any funding from them, and it’s hard,” Gomez said. “There needs to be some kind of ongoing conversation of the sustainability of the business models, and how we can find a way to keep them around.”
With the help of her two managing editors, Jimena Tavel and Caitlin Ostroff, Gomez launched the Save Student Newsrooms campaign, aimed at raising awareness about the importance of an independent student press. The trio reached out to student journalists all over the country and enlisted 135 newsrooms to publish editorials highlighting their work and circulate testimony about their experiences with censorship. Roughly half the newsrooms they heard from were independent, while the other half were university-affiliated, Gomez said.
For student papers that receive funding from their universities, jeopardized editorial independence is hardly a new phenomenon. Cassidy Grom, a recent graduate of Taylor University, a Christian college in Upland, Indiana, founded the Student Press Coalition after her own experience with censorship. She contacted 136 Christian colleges with a survey on the issue. Of the student editors at 49 newsrooms that participated, 70% said they had an official adviser who could pull the plug on a story that was deemed problematic for the university. Of those, 30% said an adviser had done so in the past.
Censorship can take many overt forms, according to her survey, Grom noted. One respondent said the university’s adviser actually took stacks of newspapers and locked them up. Another respondent denounced admissions officers for hiding copies of the paper when large tour groups came to campus. At many others, the adviser exercised full-fledged prior review of all articles.
“Student newspapers are responsible for holding their university officials accountable, and if those same university officials have a say in the editorial content then that becomes messy,” Grom said. “It would be like Sarah Huckabee Sanders participating in a New York Times meeting.”
Some might find censorship at Christian colleges unsurprising, and one phenomenon might explain that thinking. Grom suggested that reporters at Christian institutions may hear a constant, more covert refrain to discourage them from pursuing the truth: “You don’t want to make your Christian brothers and sisters look bad.” Others might feel that exposing injustice on their campus might be incompatible with Christian notions of grace. Several editors admitted to being influenced by their school spirit and faith, often leading them to exercise self-censorship, according to the survey.
But at other religious colleges, such as Georgetown University, censorship is less a bureaucratic or cultural issue than a financial one. Editors at The Hoya have separate, confidential email addresses that are not scrutinized by the university, and young writers are encouraged to pitch and pursue stories as they see fit. Although the paper — where I was managing editor — does have a university adviser, he has no prior review of the articles to be published. Instead, much of the health of student media depends on student government, which allocates funds collected from student fees. Last year, for unspecified reasons, the student government association required various media outlets on campus to take an almost 40% budget cut. This led to the elimination of one of The Hoya’s two weekly print editions and also weakened other publications.
Other newsrooms have had worse fates, such as The Wesleyan Argus at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, which had its funds revoked by student government after it published an article critical of the Black Lives Matter movement.
To Gomez, a recent alumna of UF, it is imperative that the university community — and alumni, in particular — acknowledge that “student journalism is real journalism.”
“For a democracy to survive, it needs something like an independent institution to be able to report objectively on other institutions. And it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the university-affiliated student publication that does not have complete editorial independence to be able to objectively report on their university or community, just because there’s always that risk of censorship,” Gomez said.
Who advocates for the student press, if not the students themselves? Just as government officials are able to launch full-fledged attacks on the mainstream media with little effective opposition, universities can turn their student newspapers into mere marketing tools. But in so doing, they are ironically contradicting the university’s own academic mission: Instead of contributing to the education of dedicated journalists who pursue hard-hitting stories, universities are diluting the very values enshrined in our already-embattled First Amendment.
Jesus Rodriguez is a member of the Class of 2019 in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, studying international politics. A first-generation student from Orlando, Florida, Jesus has served as an editor and writer for The Hoya and as an editorial intern for the Council on Foreign Relations.