Jan 29, 2007

right for the wrong reasons: giving student journalists greater autonomy

In The Olympian this morning, a report on the student journalists who descended on the Capitol, full of righteous rhetoric:
"The question is simple: 'Are we people?' The Constitution provides that people have fundamental rights of speech," testified Brian Schraum, a Green River Community College graduate now attending Washington State University.

He brought the issue to lawmakers after a federal court ruling in the Midwest said universities could review articles before publication.

"Look into the eyes of students in the audience. We are people," Schraum challenged the lawmakers.
Strong words, but weak logic. It might interest Mr. Schraum to know that he has no First Amendment right to publish in The Olympian, on a bathroom stall at Applebee's, on this blog, or wherever someone else owns the medium. Schools are not even obligated to have student newspapers, never mind fund them or make them part of the course offerings.

Would Schraum support legislation to let a professional journalist sue The Olympian for refusing to run an article, whatever the editor's excuse? I hope not. Yet, analogously, that's what this legislation demands: "injunctive and declaratory relief" whenever a paranoid administrator reaches for the Wite-Out.

Let's examine some of the arguments offered in Schraum's defense by a fellow student journalist (and former student of mine).
Just as local newspapers offer residents a place to voice and vent their concerns and critiques, so too does a student-run newspaper give students a place to voice their opinions.
However, residents can't sue when their letter to the editor isn't published--and, as I mentioned before, neither can reporters when their bosses trash a story that might offend a prominent advertiser. Weasely, sure, but not a rights violation.
When student newspapers are censored, students no longer have a place for their concerns to be heard.
This is simply false. The school newspaper is hardly students' only medium for a message. (This also means that administrators have no business attempting to interfere in student expression outside the classroom.)
Student newspapers, though instituted through the school, are actually run by students. It's not a forum for the school as a whole, but specifically for the students, the primary readership. Thus they, not administration, should be in control of the content.
Maybe in the Workers World the paper runs that way, but every other paper in existence has a chain of command.
Just as a local newspaper can choose what it prints, a student newspaper should be given the same right.
A local paper can choose what it prints--but not really. Editors, reporters, readers, community standards, journalistic ethics, and almighty advertisers all shape content--and, as I've stated before, the owner has the final say.

One thing Schraum, Watts, and everyone else should agree upon: in Watts' words, "Too little faith is put in students' ability to determine appropriateness and to handle controversial topics." I want student journalists to be given greater responsibility to challenge and provoke their peers in the service of learning. My desire, though, arises from practical, not sacred, obligations. It's because I want smarter, savvier journalists, not because of a righteous misreading of the First Amendment.

There are other ways to get administrators to cave, each a potential civics lesson. Protests. (Professional) media coverage. Angry parent phone calls. Reasoned, impassioned argument. And, dare I say it, blogging. Ill-founded, won't-survive-the-appeals-court lawsuits aren't the answer.

(Bill text here [pdf]. Bill history here.)


Emmett said...

I can't figure out why the internet hasn't made this a moot point.

Jim Anderson said...

It's because administrators are all too happy to regulate that, too.