FIRE’s Top 3 Free Press Cases
January 31, 2013
by Joseph Cohn
Over the years, FIRE has repeatedly gone to bat for student newspapers and student journalists faced with censorship. That censorship came in many forms, ranging from newspaper theft, reduced support from student activity funds, and the firing of faculty advisors, to prior review and editorial control of content. Since it's Free Press Week, here, in no particular order, are three of the most egregious examples of free press violations from FIRE's case archives.
Prior restraint was the censorship tool of choice for administrators at Quinnipiac University (QU) from 2007 through much of 2008. Back then, the university prohibited the student editors of The Quinnipiac Chronicle from publishing news online prior to the same news appearing in print. The university president claimed that the policy was necessary so that he could read the news in print "before the external world hears about it."
The policy didn't sit too well with the paper's editor-in-chief, Jason Braff, who then challenged the policy. The university responded by declaring that "student leaders, especially those in paid positions, are expected to generally be supportive of university policies." Then the administration took control over the selection of Chronicle staff for the upcoming year in an effort to control the paper more effectively.
The students didn't take that assault on their rights sitting down. Instead, they abandoned the Chronicle and founded an independent online news source, The Quad News, which began publishing at the start of the new semester.
Freedom of speech and freedom of the press were not the only freedoms threatened by the Quinnipiac administration. They also violated students' rights to freedom of association. As we reported at the time in The Torch:
When students in QU's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) and student members of The Quad News jointly participated in activities held on campus, Daniel W. Brown, Director of QU's Student Center and Student Leadership Development, wrote to Jaclyn Hirsch, who is both SPJ president and managing editor of The Quad News saying that "any further interaction or endorsements with The QUAD News [sic] could result in the Quinnipiac University Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists losing its recognition status." Although QU is a private university, they should still be expected to hold certain values in high regard, freedom of association being one of them.
In 2012, East Carolina University (ECU), a public university subject to the First Amendment, found itself in the center of a growing controversy after it terminated its director of student media, Paul Isom. Isom's firing came in the wake of a decision by the editorial board of student newspaper, The East Carolinian, to run uncensored photos of a streaker at an ECU game on the front page of their November 8, 2011 issue. ECU's vice chancellor for student affairs called the decision to run the photos "in very poor taste" and noted that ECU officials did not support the decision to print them. The evidence indicated that Isom was indeed fired for the decision to print the photos.
This blatantly unconstitutional attempt to control the student press's content did not go unnoticed. FIRE brought ECU's unconstitutional decision to light, and the Student Press Law Center, The First Amendment Center, the National Press Photographers Association, and the University of South Florida student paper, The Oracle, all joined in the fight.
Isom eventually sued ECU, and the case settled in March when ECU agreed to pay him $31,200 in damages.
In April 2009, censorship was thriving at the University of Massachusetts Amherst (UMass). The main controversy at UMass started when The Minuteman, a conservative campus newspaper, mocked a student government official by name. The student government passed a resolution requiring The Minuteman to publish an apology or lose its funding. As if the unconstitutional threat of a funding cut were not bad enough, the situation quickly took a turn for the worse when the student government official mentioned in the article literally ripped hundreds of copies of the newspaper out of the hands of students distributing them. Worse yet, the whole thing was caught on tape, but campus police did nothing to address the theft. In response, a student senator offered a resolution to reverse the unconstitutional censorship, but, unbelievably, that senator was hauled out of the room by the police at the Senate Speaker's request.
Police inaction or complicity in ignoring free speech rights was a theme on the UMass campus. Just one month prior to the newspaper theft, a speech by columnist Don Feder was shouted down by hecklers while UMass police officers sat idly by. As outrageous as that sounds, it was even more shocking given that UMass had unconstitutionally imposed an additional $444.52 security fee (which, after pressure from FIRE, UMass eventually agreed to refund) on the event sponsors because of the planned protests of the event.
These are just three episodes from FIRE's depressingly large archive of cases related to suppression of the rights of student journalists. If you are involved in a student publication on your campus, know your rights. FIRE's guides to free speech on campus and the Student Press Law Center website are a good places to start. Your work as a student journalist not only keeps the campus community informed but acts as a forum for vibrant debate.