LAWSON: Protect the independence of student media

To provide legitimate spaces of discourse in their academic communities, student-run publications must report candidly on tough issues

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Attempts to curb the objective coverage of events on campus endangers the ability of student journalists to provide accurate reporting.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The Cavalier Daily ran a column earlier this month shedding light on the newspaper’s tumultuous path to financial and legal independence. The forgotten story details the organization’s rejection of then-University President Frank Hereford’s attempt to censor its coverage of persistent racial issues plaguing the University community in the late 1970s. As a result, The Cavalier Daily lost the majority of its financial and legal support and has continued to distance itself from the University as a benefactor ever since. 

Today, campus journalism across the country faces threats on all fronts. It is burdened with balancing the particularities of university censorship and student demands, all while maintaining a semblance of objectivity. As freedom of speech on campuses confronts challenges from various adversaries, it is important to remember the principles of candid and comprehensive reporting that guided The Cavalier Daily to journalistic independence. 

At universities throughout the United States, the student press serves as the official defender of unrestrained and honest discourse about any number of issues. As some of the sole platforms students possess to explore and debate particular issues facing their academic communities, campus media organizations have the responsibility to protect freedom of expression. By virtue of this task, these organizations often run the risk of expressing editorial opinions or publishing sensitive content at odds with university leadership. 

The natural function of student-run newspapers is to channel and publicize a wide-range of student sentiment, which often takes the form of disapproval toward specific collegiate policies. In the case of The Cavalier Daily, this disapproval manifested itself in the student populace’s fight for racial equality and desegregation at the University. Accordingly, student-run publications fill an essential role as arbiter between broader student opinion and the universities they attend. 

But the intellectual tug-of-war playing out on American campuses is not confined to the student media versus college administrators. A new strain of censorship involving large-scale intimidation by students opposed to the reporting of particular sensitive subjects has made recent headlines. Rather than attempting to engage in discourse with published material they disagree with, student protesters are demanding its erasure.

Recently, personnel from The Harvard Crimson and The Daily Northwestern faced censure at the hands of their classmates for standard journalistic practices. The former was boycotted by the student activist group Act on a Dream for reaching out to representatives from Immigration and Customs Enforcement for comment in their coverage of a rally calling for the agency’s abolishment. The university’s Undergraduate Council recently passed a resolution in support of the club, implicitly upholding this selective and pernicious form of censorship. 

Similarly, Northwestern’s student newspaper issued an editorial apologizing for its coverage of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ visit to the campus and subsequent protests after widespread backlash to what was described as “retraumatizing” material. Operating under the ill-defined and vaguely applied concept of student discomfort, student protesters have sought to redefine the parameters of acceptable speech to exclude the coverage of viewpoints they oppose.

In addition to being conduits of information for students about their academic community, student-run media provides a public forum for this information to be digested and debated openly. The attempted exertion of control over student reporting by universities and from fellow students amounts to little more than blatant censorship. 

Given the tendency of prestigious schools to flaunt their high levels of student engagement, the stifling of unflattering or contentious speech in the community creates an unavoidable double standard. By the same token, student attempts to curb the objective coverage of events on campus endangers the ability of student journalists to provide comprehensive and accurate reporting. For student media to be truly independent, it must provide a platform for intellectual discourse and deliberation by not shying away from tough issues.

Charlotte Lawson is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com

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