Do Student Journalists Have Freedom of the Press?

by Eva Augustin Rumpf


When issues of press freedom arise in this country, supporters cite the First Amendment of the US Constitution as the shield that protects journalists and allows them to do their reporting in the public interest. Congress shall make no laws….abridging the freedom of speech or of the press….the famous words declare.

But does that freedom to gather information and publish or broadcast it without censorship or reprisal extend to institutions other than the corporate media? For example, does freedom of the press apply on college and university campuses? Do student journalists have First Amendment protection?

While the issue has been debated for decades at campuses around the country, the current flap over the removal of the student media adviser at Marquette University brings it home. As reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the university has declined to renew the contract of Tom Mueller, faculty adviser for the Marquette Tribune.

Mueller told the Journal Sentinel that he believes he was fired because the administration is not pleased with the newspaper’s content, which is written and edited by student journalists. The administration has denied the charge.

Whatever the reason for Mueller’s release, the incident raises the issue of student press freedom. It is a complex and controversial one, and its resolution rests on one’s interpretation of the First Amendment and a university’s educational mission.

At publicly funded colleges and universities, it seems apparent that administrators shouldn’t and usually don’t restrict the student media, as the institution is a function of state or local government. Censorship and other restrictions by the administration suggest the long arm of government infringing on student rights.

However, this interpretation has been challenged in recent years at some public universities, most notably at campuses of the University of Texas system. According to the Student Press Law Center, an attorney for the UT system has argued that college newspapers should be subject to the same rules that apply to high school publications. At Kansas State University, an adviser was removed from his post because the administration was dissatisfied with the content of the student newspaper.

At private universities, such as Marquette, there is no guarantee of First Amendment rights. There the university is technically the publisher and as such can and often does restrict the content of student media. Sometimes the administration mistakenly views student publications as PR vehicles and objects when the content is not flattering to the university.

However, in the interest of providing student journalists with authentic training and experience, as well as adding legitimacy to the publications, many enlightened private schools grant the students freedom of the press and step back to let them do their job.

Moreover, this freedom makes the student editors responsible for the content. If they make errors, publish inaccurate or unbalanced stories, or offend their readers, they must deal with the consequences. Through this real-world process, the students learn and, it is hoped, they become better journalists.

I believe the role of the faculty adviser is to teach, counsel and advise the student editors, but never direct or censor the content. Reviewing and critiquing the newspaper should come after publication, not before. And here is where advisers often find themselves in hot water, when administrators subtly or openly put pressure on them to manage the content.

I worked during the 1990s as journalism instructor and student media adviser at Marquette University and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. Both are private schools with religious connections. Both professed to allow press freedom for student media, and the extent of that right often depended on who sat in the dean’s or president’s office.

Most of the time, the students were free to cover, report and publish what the editors chose. But from time to time, my phone would ring with complaints about misspelled words, inaccurate quotes, an unbalanced story, an unfair editorial or failure to cover a campus event. The biggest brouhaha occurred when the student advertising manager accepted a paid ad questioning the Holocaust.

I discussed all legitimate complaints with the editors and sometimes reprimanded them for carelessness. But I also saw my role as a buffer between the administrators and the students when the attack was unjustified or threatened their independence. And I tried to foster the belief that one of the best showcases for a university and its journalism department was a professional-looking and entirely student-run newspaper.

The adviser’s role is a weighty one that involves a constant balancing act between the interests of administrators and those of students. It requires recognizing the boundaries in the murky ground between control and freedom.

©copyright 2005 Eva Augustin Rumpf

This article previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

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