Censorship of student media is pervasive across the United States, despite the lack of substantial qualitative data to confirm a recent uptick in cases, media scholars and researchers say.
Interviews with student journalists, media advisers and media law researchers found that they’ve been censored or have witnessed student media censorship either as a bystander or defender of a student journalist’s First Amendment rights.
“There’s been a growing hostility between student publications and the administration and the community they’re seeking to cover,” said Sommer Ingram Dean, staff attorney at the Student Press Law Center.
Censorship is the most common reason high school and college student media contact SPLC, Ingram Dean said.
It can be difficult to find centralized data about student media censorship, but a number of groups, including SPLC, are collecting important data.
The Free Speech Tracker was launched in 2017 at Georgetown University to monitor threats to political, social and intellectual expression in education, civil society and government. Eight of the 33 entries under “press” involved a student-run newspaper or media group — the majority on high school campuses.
More than half of the 200 entries, regardless of category, occurred in an academic environment, according to the database.
The database includes references to efforts by Denver high school administrators to censor student journalists from reporting on classroom conditions during the teachers’ strike in early 2019; an Arkansas school district’s November 2018 demand that the high school newspaper remove a story that investigated the transfer of high school football players; and a Burlington, Vermont, high school principal’s calls to remove a September 2018 article that detailed misconduct by a faculty member.
But not all attempts to silence student media organizations are included in the database.
For example, a California high school in May published a profile of an 18-year-old student who was working in the porn industry and who willingly spoke to the reporter. The school district demanded that the adviser provide the story for a pre-publication review but adviser Kathi Duffel refused, despite being threatened with firing. The district eventually said it would not prevent publication, but still believed it had the right to review or censor student media content.
In April, an article questioning the whereabouts of a high school assistant principal in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, was removed from the student newspaper’s online platform just one hour after publication.
The number of examples that occurred on high school campuses doesn’t surprise Grace Marion, former editor-in-chief of Neshaminy High School’s newspaper in Langhorne, Pennsylvania, and the 2019 recipient of the Hefner First Amendment Award.
The public school environment “is stereotypically harsh,” Marion said. “That teacher from [the movie] ‘Matilda’ is in every school. I think on the base level, we’re telling students to shut up.”
High school administrators censor under the pretense they are keeping “inappropriate” content from students, Marion said, but are, in fact, monitoring all the publications’ content.
In the landmark 1988 Hazelwood decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that school administrators could censor stories in the school-sponsored student newspaper. However, justices in the 5-3 decision said school officials did not have an unlimited license to censor and that all students have First Amendment protections.
That decision came after students in a journalism class at Hazelwood East High School in St. Louis, Missouri, wrote about teen pregnancy and the effects of divorce on children and tried to publish them in the student newspaper. The principal removed the stories before publication without telling the students.
Marion, now a sophomore at the University of Mississippi and staff writer and photographer for the Daily Mississippian, said she hasn’t experienced the same kind of censorship in college. An administrator may tell her that students won’t be interested in the story she’s pursuing, but “no one has told me I can’t write something,” Marion said. The advisers just might not publish the story, she added.
Censorship on college campuses does exist.
A study conducted by Lindsie Trego, a legal fellow at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, found that 60% of newspapers and their companion websites at public, bachelor degree-granting institutions in the United States reported at least one instance of administrative censorship during the previous year.
In addition, 76% percent of editors at student newspapers from 50 U.S. Christian colleges and universities said they had faced pressure from university personnel to “change, edit or remove an article after it’s been published in print or online,” a survey by the Student Press Coalition found.
Fewer than one-fourth of student editors at Council for Christian Colleges and Universities newspapers said their private institutions give them the same press freedoms public universities allow, the survey found. A total of 70% of CCCU student-run publications have “advisers in place who can control what stories are printed,” the same survey found.
About half of the student editors surveyed from CCCUs consider the policies as censorship, according to the report.
In a July op-ed in The Washington Post, Will E. Young, the former editor of Liberty University’s student-run newspaper echoed the studies findings. He did not say whether he participated in the survey.
“A lot of what I found is that on evangelical, private universities [censorship] is pretty rampant,” Young said in an interview with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. “It’s not as extreme as it was at Liberty, but a lot of kids I talked to said that administrators at evangelical universities are able to tailor what they print.”
Young said administrators at Christian schools often remove anything they consider controversial as well as anything they believe could damage the university’s reputation.
At Liberty, Young said he tried to negotiate with administrators who edited his work. He said he’d occasionally agree to remove some elements of a story if other parts remained unchanged as a way to “still get good journalism out.”
After the 2016 presidential election, he said the staff was criticized by alums and others who he believed supported Donald Trump. He said many of the critics were emboldened by Trump’s rhetoric toward the media and Liberty President Jerry Falwell Jr.’s close relationship with the incoming administration.
Young left his position at the Champion in early 2017; the school did not replace him but did maintain control of the paper.
New ways to censor
Vincent Filak, a professor and student media adviser at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh,said censorship is “trying to limit people from telling stories before they try to tell them,” usually when that student journalism reveals critical information about the school.
“Schools are now trying to protect their brand more than ever.” Filak said.
One way to do that, he said, is by reducing the paper’s finances.
Student government at Wichita State University cut the student-run newspaper’s budget in half, from $105,000 to $55,000 in 2018. In three years, The Sunflower lost more than 60 percent of its annual budget, according to the paper.
However, funding for the 2019-20 academic year was set at $150,000, the paper reported in March.
Newspaper theft is a common form of censorship, though the number of incidents have decreased in the last two years, according to the Student Press Law Center.
The last spike in thefts occurred in 2012, with 27 reported student newspaper thefts. The number of thefts continued to decline for the next five years. But in 2018, newspaper theft increased again, jumping from just one in 2017 to eight reported incidents in 2018.
There have been six thefts so far in 2019, according to the most recent SPLC data.
The future of censorship
More organizations are joining SPLC in collecting data on student media censorship. Save our Student Newsrooms is a campaign designed to educate the public about the challenges student-run newsrooms face; other groups are simply trying to raise awareness and garner support.
Frank LoMonte, president of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida and former executive director of the SPLC, said censorship is getting worse.
The assumption, he said, is that there will be an on-campus, student-run newspaper that is “an integral part of what it means to be a campus. But I think that assumption is no longer reliable.”
LoMonte said that more people are becoming aware of efforts to censor student media and that “when there is egregious censorship, people are supporting the students.”
Editor’s note: Graphic numbers on theft incidents only show recorded / reported instances of newspaper theft. (Graphic by SPLC)