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Voice of America tackles threats to student press freedom

January 5, 2017

 

Voice of America this week published a new piece about the plight of college newspapers and other student-run news organizations, a topic that’s been in the press quite a bit in the past year.

The VOA story stems from a report that I helped write as chairman of the First Amendment Advocacy Program of College Media Association: a role separate from my work as the UVM student media adviser. Other contributors to the report include writers and editors at the American Association of University Professors, the Student Press Law Center and the National Coalition Against Censorship.

It’s hard to say whether the number of cases of censorship by college officials is increasing, but, in the modern media environment, our awareness of threats to students’ free expression is.

College officials sometimes demand to see stories before they go to print or cut funding entirely if student journalists write articles that offend their sensibilities. This happens with stories ranging from the obviously vital—investigations into the actions of misbehaving administrators, say—to the seemingly trivial, such as the best places to hook up on campus. Student government organizations sometimes punish the press, too.

In many cases, perpetrators of this censorship claim other motives for their actions and say that censorship isn’t taking place at all. They might say that they want to shutter a newsroom because of concerns about a newspaper’s finances or that the removal of the newspaper’s adviser is a result of larger university cutbacks. Sometimes they say that an adviser has been removed from her position for other work-related reasons that they can’t discuss because of privacy rules around personnel issues. Sometimes, definitely, censorship has nothing to do with it, but our research shows that, too often, it does.

We’re blessed at the University of Vermont, where college officials value the student press in a way that not every higher ed administrator does. If The Vermont Cynic publishes something that offends a reader, then UVM officials point that reader to the student editors. This is so automatic that, even as the newspaper’s adviser, I usually don’t hear about these complaints until well after students have responded to the offended party, whether it be a local business owner or government official.

Not every college media organization is so fortunate. Our hope is that the report might shine a light on these problems and provide guidance for how to move forward.

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