Stop(ping) the presses!
EFFECTIVE immediately, I hereby resign as faculty adviser of the Babson Free Press, the weekly student newspaper at Babson College, a small private business school west of Boston. The recent Supreme Court decision that gives school administrators the power to censor student newspapers forces me to give up the position. I respect the integrity of students and the profession of journalism too much to continue to formally serve in the capacity of faculty adviser where I may now be expected to censor student writing on any subject that is ``reasonably related to legitimate pedagogical concerns.'' Read that as being anything a school administrator thinks is controversial.
Although this decision is specifically targeted to student newspapers at public high schools, the message from the Supreme Court is chilling for the college press, too.
School administrators are now free to censor any form of student expression in newspapers, plays, or other forms when these activities can be said to be ``school-sponsored self-expression'' and not just ``personal expression.'' Can you find a distinction between these concepts? I can't.
Students at private colleges and schools actually have never had the legal protection of their First Amendment press rights, since their administrators are not representatives of the government. Freedom for the student press has rested on the idea that public schools and colleges are arms of the state and therefore may not control the content of the student press.
Until now, this ``hands off'' attitude toward students at public schools has helped students at private schools to enjoy some measure of freedom, but this new ruling suggests that students ``shed their constitutional right at the schoolhouse door.''
I do not expect the school officials at my college to immediately suspend the expressive rights of student journalists; but the rules of the game have changed with this recent ruling, even for school administrators who are tolerant of students' self-expression.
And with the student press, controversial issues are always arising. At our school, parents have been known to call the college president when their issue of the paper did not arrive in the mail. When I meet with other faculty advisers at professional conferences, we share hours and hours of ``war stories'' about the pressures applied to the student press whenever a story gets published that hits a nerve in the school community.
Students, just as journalism professionals, make errors of judgment occasionally, and they quickly learn from experience. After reading the Supreme Court ruling, will supervisors and administrators now expect faculty advisers to monitor and control the student press to ``exercise editorial control over the style and content'' of student speech? I expect so, and I want no part of it.
It also teaches the wrong lesson about the rights and responsibilities of the press in this country: Students will now live under a system where the cardinal rules about publishing a newspaper will be ``do not offend'' and ``avoid controversy.'' How will students learn about balancing power and responsibility when they never have the chance to exercise it or have to live with the consequences of neglecting it? What kind of journalists will they be?
This ruling does damage both to our students and our schools. Our responsibility as educators to ensure standards of excellence is ``not a general warrant to act as `thought police,' stifling discussion of all but state-approved topics and advocacy of all but the official position,'' as Associate Justice William Brennan Jr. writes in his dissent.
When I stand up at the blackboard and lecture about the rights of self-expression guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, describing the immense and profound social values that free speech and free press engender, how can I avoid a smirk and a sigh, knowing that the individuals who sit in front of me do not have the same rights of free expression while enrolled in school?
As an educator vitally concerned with journalism education in the broadest sense, I urge students to free their newspapers from the repression by formally separating from the college by rejecting school funding, operating off campus if necessary, and incorporating as an independent entity.
``Going independent'' has rarely been possible for college newspapers without the vigorous support and encouragement of alumni parents, faculty, and representatives of the local media. Now it represents the only viable alternative for our students to really learn about the meaning of a free press.
Renee Hobbs is assistant professor of communications at Babson College, Wellesley, Mass.