This past weekend my local PBS station aired a 30th anniversary edition of the film All the President's Men, based on the 1974 book of the same name. Part biography, part mystery, part historical document, the book detailing the exploits of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein became required reading for a whole generation of journalists, and put the phrase "investigative journalism" into the American consciousness. It launched a remarkable era of some incredible reporting in which the media truly became watchdogs of the people.
These days, however, corporate interests often dictate news coverage and journalists are cowed into spiking important stories, lest they be fired or branded as unpatriotic. The mainstream media seem to have given up on the pursuit of truth, rarely probing or asking the tough questions.
Realizing that in-depth journalism may be headed to the endangered species list, the Society of Professional Journalists is hoping to protect the last vestiges of independent reporting by urging colleges and universities around the country to designate their student publications as public forums that would be free from censorship by administrators.
The campaign comes as a result of the 2005 case of Hosty v. Carter, in which Governors State University's (Ill.) student newspaper, The Innovator, ran afoul of the administration by publishing some scathing reports on administrators. In response, former Dean Patricia Carter ordered copies of the newspaper seized, and notified the printer that no future editions could be published without prior administrative review. The printer alerted the students, who sued the school for violating their rights. For her part, Carter said she wanted to review the paper for grammar and punctuation mistakes.
The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the university, citing the 1988 case of Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier, which allowed censorship in certain cases at the high school level. The court ruled that the same restrictions observed by high school newspapers in the state also apply to the college press.
But the SPJ believes that other institutions might be more supportive of a free press with the "public forum" designation.
"It is a sad irony that at some colleges-places where public discourse is at the core of all education-the first reaction by officials is to attempt to restrict the ability of student journalists to do their jobs," says Mead Loop, vice president for campus chapter affairs. "Whether it is censorship, theft of publications, removal of advisers, or another tactic, some administrators teach students the lesson that the First Amendment comes second to their own point of view."
The SPJ statement has been printed on wallet-sized cards, which student journalists and advisers can use to educate others, including administrators, about the rights of student media. The card reads: "Student media are designated public forums, and free from censorship and advance approval of content. Because content and funding are unrelated, student media are free to develop editorial policies and news coverage with the understanding that students and student organizations speak only for themselves. Administrators, faculty, staff, or other agents shall not consider the student media's content when making decisions regarding the media's funding."
The cards (available by calling SPJ's Loop at 607-274-3047) can be used as a model for adoption by colleges or as a guide in a school's own statement of principle.
In a time when Britney Spears' parenting abilities pass for front page news, it's important that college and university administrators support the young journalists who will one day, it is hoped, be responsible for speaking truth to power.
Write to Tim Goral at firstname.lastname@example.org.