Defending Free Speech on Campus Means Defending Student Journalists, Too

(Jonathan Drake/Reuters)
Fully exercising freedom of speech is crucial to students learning how to navigate the rough-and-tumble world of modern media once college is over.

Free speech and a free press go hand in hand, and they face similar challenges on college campuses as in the world at large.

Advocates often discuss the “campus speech” problem as if it’s a challenge uniquely shouldered by universities. The reality is that cultural trends toward polarization and censorship are rippling through education.

A quarter of the general population want the president to have the power to shutter media outlets. Nearly a third think the First Amendment “goes too far.” It should not surprise us that echoes of those sentiments resound on campus. Nearly two-thirds of university students (61 percent) believe that the climate on their campus prevents some students from expressing their views.

The debate about how free the student press should be is an extension of the broader campus free-speech debate with the same First Amendment rights and competing demands for institutional censorship. Thankfully, universities are uniquely positioned to stem the cultural tide of censorship by renewing their mission of open inquiry, resisting censorship, and reminding a new generation of Americans of the benefits made possible by unfettered pursuit of truth.

Policymakers in Virginia and Nebraska are poised to help them do it.

Bills being considered by lawmakers in Richmond and Lincoln, based on a model from the Student Press Law Center, would limit administrative censorship of student media in public secondary schools, and colleges. The Nebraska bill cleared its first legislative hurdle by an overwhelming 27–5 vote, indicating there’s more agreement on campus speech than you may think. This continues a trend from just last year when bipartisan coalitions of state lawmakers passed positive campus expression policies in more states than ever before.

The goal of the Virginia and Nebraska measures is to guarantee that student journalists enjoy the full protection of the First Amendment — which should help to ensure that all students on those campuses graduate with awareness of what it means to be part of a free and independent press.

These state policies are necessary. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier in 1988 that public-school officials can stop student journalists from publishing material the administrators don’t approve of. Some lower courts in the years since have stretched the decision to permit university administrators to censor student journalists too.

But fully exercising that freedom is crucial to students learning how to navigate the rough-and-tumble world of modern media once college is over.

Working on the school paper or at the campus radio or TV station sets templates for young journalists to follow throughout their careers. Beyond that, many are already out in the “real world.” The Pew Research Center reported in 2014 that students account for 14 percent of journalists covering state capitals. That number is almost certainly higher today.

The last thing we want to do is inure budding journalists to the notion that suppressing critical voices rather than seeking them out is the path to success.

We want them courting controversy, not avoiding it, seeking out and reporting on unpopular viewpoints, not suppressing them. And we want them doing all this without having to look over their shoulders at school administrators wielding a red pen or a kill switch.

This is not a theoretical proposition or, as one Nebraska lawmaker called it, a solution in search of a problem. It’s a problem.

Last fall at Radford University, a school employee took more than 800 copies of the student-run paper, the Tartan, from campus newsstands, apparently because of objections to an article about a professor’s death. Conservative student journalists have also faced confiscation of their newspapers by university officials, budget reductions penalizing unwanted reporting, or just direct censorship.

Protection of free expression clears the way for the students and scholars to expand opportunities for rich public discourse and open inquiry, elements that distinguish universities as engines of learning and discovery and prepare graduates to value these freedoms.

Leaders in Virginia and Nebraska have before them a chance to stand together to champion a free press on campus. They should seize it.


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