Posts Tagged ‘Free Speech’

The Student Press Law Center has been valiantly raising awareness of a court battle that its executive director Frank LoMonte calls “a gigantic case that hasn’t gotten nearly the attention it deserves.”

The case: Tatro v. University of Minnesota.

The gist, according to an SPLC report: “Amanda Tatro, a former student in the mortuary sciences department at the University of Minnesota, posted comments to her Facebook wall in November and December 2009 about ‘playing’ with her cadaver in her anatomy course and wanting ‘to stab a certain someone in the throat with a trocar,’ a needle-like embalming tool. . . . The university filed a formal complaint against Tatro in late December 2009, alleging her comments were threatening and in violation of the rules of the mortuary science program. . . . [A UM committee] ruled that Tatro must take an F in the anatomy course, undergo a psychiatric evaluation and be placed on academic probation.”  Tatro is suing the school for violating her free speech rights.

The larger implications: Tatro made the apparently sarcastic comments on her personal social network, off campus.  Should schools be allowed to monitor and punish students for their social media behavior simply because they find it distasteful?

A higher ed. environment suffused with a watch-what-you-say-about-your-school-at-all-times-especially-if-it’s-critical mindset does not exactly scream First Amendment.   The related consequences for campus media are also potentially enormous.

In a recent opinion piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, LoMonte argues, “If the justices of the Minnesota Supreme Court lose sight of the larger constitutional issues, the outcome in the case could give colleges virtually limitless authority to silence speech critical of their programs, no matter where it is uttered. . . . While colleges clearly may discipline students for off-campus criminal behavior, the idea that colleges have free-floating good-citizenship authority to punish lawful behavior that administrators subjectively deem ‘disruptive’ is breathtaking in its potential for abuse.”

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Elon University officials are investigating a student for honor code violations after she told the school’s campus newspaper she drinks underage at a local bar thanks to a fake ID.

At the tail-end of a story late last month about a nearby tap house known as a place “where [underage students] can consume alcohol without getting caught,” an Elon sophomore willingly gave The Pendulum the following quote, on the record, with full attribution: “Fake IDs do work.  I have a 21 wristband due to my fake ID, so I don’t get in trouble for drinking.”

Can you guess what happened next?  As the Pendulum reported yesterday, “It wasn’t long before she received an email from Jodean Schmiederer, assistant dean of students, telling her to set up a Student Conduct meeting to address the admitted Honor Code violations.”

According to the paper, it is the first time a student has been investigated due to something they have said in a Pendulum story.  It appears to fall under a blanket rule stating students are “responsible for every action made between matriculation and graduation,” including comments made on social media, in online forums, and apparently even within student publications . . . if they use their real names.

To steer clear of trouble, one Elon admin. suggests that when talk turns controversial or wades into illegality, students should stay anonymous– a protective instinct he says the student press should also possess.  As he asks the paper, “Would the story have had a bigger impact for me as a reader if you said ‘a sophomore with whom we spoke said this?’  That would have been just as informative to me as it would to have used someone’s name.”

Hmm.  Smart suggestion or dangerous precedent?  Pendulum staffers and Student Press Law Center attorney advocate Adam Goldstein call it hypocrisy– making the school seem more concerned about stopping attributable statements about illegal behavior than actually stopping the behavior itself.

Goldstein: “It’s like a no fly list, right?  We only catch terrorists who go under their real name. If you’re smart enough to lie about your name, then you’re not going to get caught. There’s an element of that here.  Does the university want to stop underage drinking, or do they want to stop people from admitting it?

In a well-written editorial, the Pendulum pointed out the irony of the investigation being launched less than a day after a high-level admin. said at a public event there are no free speech restrictions on campus.  As it begins, “The guise of meaningful exchange and public discourse has been ripped away to expose Elon University’s true priorities when it comes to free speech on campus.”

It subsequently attacks the school for “punishing a student for speaking candidly about a serious campus problem. . . . We are a community that must listen to one another, even when that dialogue is one not necessarily easy.  The Elon administration has made a grave mistake and the Pendulum will not stand for it.  Elon must not create an environment where students are scared of repercussions and become unwilling to speak to the Pendulum or any other news organization.”

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A student newspaper firing has transformed into a bare-knuckle free-speech slug-fest at Central Connecticut State University, as The Hartford Courant reports.

In one cornerThe Recorder, the CCSU student newspaper, which publicly acknowledged removing its opinion editor from her position when her political activism became too public, undermining her ability to do her job and represent the paper objectively (or at least transparently).

In the other corner: The opinion editor, a CCSU student with socialist leanings and an anti-war-in-Iraq bent who is (loudly) proclaiming that her firing is a censorious attempt to muzzle a student journalist’s outside interests, voice, and beliefs. 

The first punch: According to a letter from the paper’s editorial board, the student “was not fired for her personal beliefs, values, political leanings or otherwise.” The termination, instead, arrived when she made such leanings public.  Under the paper’s ethics code, her fate was sealed in part by her signatures- specifically those she penned on various political petitions and for protests.  

Is the paper’s call the right one? It certainly has merit. There does need to be some distance between a person’s public involvements and their chosen coverage area. The problem is as much the perception of bias as it is the existence of any actual bias that might seep into the paper. As the editorial team’s letter stated, past Recorder staffers have been forced to choose between joining the paper and student government or a campus political club.  The issue, in the end, is always one of relevance- a sports editor who signs a get-out-of-Iraq petition is one thing, an opinion editor who helps shape the political voice of the newspaper signing one and showing up at related protests truly does deserve some raised eyebrows.

Counter-punch: The former editor is currently on a get-back-my-job-free-speech-PR-campaign.  She argues that her political views, not her actions, led to her downfall, making her termination an “attack on the freedom of speech of anyone on this campus who has ever taken a stance against racism, sexism, war, homophobia, religious intolerance, inequality or any other injustice.”

Here’s a short video report from the Courant:

Courant Video

What do you think???

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“Campus gossip Web site tests freedom of speech”: One student’s take on the continuing Juicy Campus saga (Poughkeepsie Journal)


“Students see the possibilities”: A journalism professor writes about what keeps students joining J&MC programs (Miami Herald)


“College students learn records may be open, courtesy not a given”: A rundown of j-students’ experiences gathering public documents in River Falls, Wisc., as part of an information gathering course (River Falls Journal)


“Back home again in Indiana”: Sports journalism program starting at Indiana University  (Reporter-Times)

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The free press battle at The Inkwell appears to be over.  The Inkwell student newspaper has settled a lawsuit it brought against its administrative overseers at Georgia’s Armstrong Atlantic State University over what the paper contended was an unfair funding cut tied to its suddenly critical university coverage.


 The Inkwell


According to The Athens Banner-Herald, AASU will provide the paper with an additional $15,000 and pay student editors’ $7,500 legal fees, an implicit acknowledgment that the paper’s suit and stance had legs (or at least that there was no positve outcome for the school in seeing the fight through). 


The settlement is one of those best-of-a-bad-situation shindigs.  Obviously, it’s good news for free press advocates, the Inkwell‘s coffers and hopefully in turn for its editorial coverage.  It’s just a shame the whole thing had to involve lawyers and billable hours and public statements of animosity.

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