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Administrators move to control collegiate press.

Many student journalists across the country are learning a valuable lesson about power as school administrators want to control what's written, even at the expense of a free student press.

In American high schools, students leave their First Amendment rights at the schoolhouse door, thanks to a landmark Supreme Court decision in 1988 that originated with a case right here in St. Louis--Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier. It held that principals can control the content of a student newspaper if they see fit. And college administrators would like to do the same.

Occasionally there are examples of such actions, including one this year at St. Louis University. It involved the University News and SLU President Lawrence Biondi. The SLU case and another at Southern Methodist University were the topic of a panel discussion at a Society of Professional Journalists luncheon June 12.

Diana Benanti, last year's editor of the University News, and Chip Stewart, a journalism doctoral student at University of Missouri--Columbia, were on the panel. Stewart was a student at Southern Methodist University in Dallas in the mid-1990s.

Benanti said Biondi and his staff made moves this spring to rescind the U. News' charter and draft a new one changing how editors are hired and fired. The administration also claimed financial concerns about the newspaper after an audit in February, an audit Benanti said she was not made aware of until after it was completed. Another part of the changes was to remove some financial compensation for the U. News editor-in-chief.

Student journalists and their supporters organized to publicly fight the administration's moves, only the latest during years of putting the squeeze on the student newspaper in various ways. Benanti said that at one point the U. News staff was told to go along or get off campus. They went online and used the pages of their publication to alert local media and the public about the situation.

U. News' unofficial adviser, Avis Meyer, had been removed as the official adviser a few years ago by Biondi, weakening his ability to serve as a buffer between the students and Biondi's office.

The administration claims its latest maneuver is just because it's interested in cleaning up what it calls grammatical and factual errors in the publication and to correct any financial malfeasance. Many college administrators across the country have used this reason to justify taking editorial control of student publications and making them more palatable as public relations organs.

Chip Stewart talked about a similar situation that happened 13 years ago at Southern Methodist University in which the administration wanted to exercise prior restraint on the student publication by requiring all copy be read by an administrator the day before publication. Since the newspaper was a four-day-a-week publication, such "pre-reading" would at the least throw a monkey wrench in the production schedule and would most likely result in an infringement of the students' First Amendment rights, Stewart said.

One hurdle for the administration taking editorial control of the newspaper at SMU was that it was part of a separate media company that merely rented space from the university. Since it was an independent publication, the university could exert little control over it. So, the administration tried to evict the media company from the student center--a tactic tried by other universities.

"When you're at a private school and the law won't protect you as much, the key is to equalize power," Stewart said.

The students started working the phones to contact people in power and the local media. Stewart said local newspapers and television stations descended on the campus.

"We thought, 'Nobody else is going to stick up for us, so we have to be our own advocates,'" Stewart said.

The students were successful in staying on campus, but the newspaper now falls under the umbrella of the communication arts school. The paper's offices are still in the student center, but their lease payments to the university increased.

Stewart said the situation seemed to be the beginning of the end of the journalism program at SMU.

"Every person at the journalism school was eventually chased out," he said.

While student journalists fighting for their First Amendment rights is not new, some of the methods are a little different in this online age.

"We couldn't blog then," Stewart said about the SMU case in the mid-1990s.

Benanti said that going online is a newer, speedier weapon in the student journalists' arsenal and it enabled staffers a much quicker response and easier way to organize themselves.

Part of the U. News' appeal for help went to the students at SLU. Benanti said that on the SLU campus there is a core group of students who are involved on campus. That group rallied behind the student journalists, but the student population on the whole didn't really get involved.

The panelists were asked what professional organizations like SPJ can do to change the fact that many students do not get involved in such situations today, versus how their counterparts 40 years ago might have.

"More outreach at younger ages, especially about how the news process works," Stewart suggested. "The younger students I get, I have to break their understanding of what the media does. Students often see news as just another avenue to advertise. I still see second-semester freshmen at Mizzou with this belief."

Benanti said that encouraging young journalists in their pursuit of the profession is key as well. Groups like SPJ can also partner with others such as College Media Advisers and the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, which deal with freedom of the press regularly.

Individual journalists can support these organizations with time and funds. And more seasoned professionals can take younger journalists under their wing and share the benefit of their experience.

Tammy Merrett is a college journalism instructor and active member of College Media Advisers. She is also the Asst General Manager and Online Editor of SJR.
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Title Annotation:SPJ gathering
Author:Merrett, Tammy
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Geographic Code:1U4MO
Date:Jul 1, 2007
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