A Tragic Script

Hampton’s task force must protect student newspaper from administrative censorship

The American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) made an important decision last week to withhold a $55,000 grant from Hampton University in Virginia after the school confiscated 6,500 copies of the student newspaper, the Hampton Script. With this move, a strong message was sent to Hampton—the student press must not be censored, even when it is politically convenient.

On Oct. 22, the Script planned to run an article about how the school cafeteria had finally passed health inspections after violating 30 provisions of the health code in September. JoAnn Haysbert, acting president and provost of Hampton, wrote a letter criticizing media coverage of the incident and mentioning the University’s consistent efforts to ameliorate the violations. She wanted the letter to run on the front page. The newspaper chose to run their article on the front page and the letter on page three.

When this decision was discovered, the administration “delayed” the delivery of the issues. Facing pressure from the administration, students agreed to run the letter on the front page and republish the paper—distributing it at the homecoming game that Saturday—on the condition that Hampton create a student-faculty task force to discuss the issue in depth.

In a statement released about the ASNE decision, Haysbert writes, “The Hampton Script Task Force... continues to meet regularly and I am confident that through their efforts the University will establish clarified guidelines for the operation of the Hampton Script.” These guidelines should not be rules dictating the constant supervision of the newspaper, but rather a check on administration power.

The task force will consist of two students and six faculty members—of which at least two are associated with Hampton’s Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications (SHSJC). Committee members with a background in journalism should help insure that the school appreciates the importance of student control of their press.

A student press is a vital part of any college community, and without freedom to make their own decisions, student journalists become no more than a gateway for university propaganda.

Unfortunately, it seems the Hampton administration has still not gotten the picture. In a letter to Hampton University explaining its decision to withdraw the funds—earmarked to support a SHSJC summer program for high school journalism teachers—the ASNE wrote, “Nothing that has happened since gives us reason to believe that there is contrition or understanding on the part of the University’s leadership of why what was done was wrong.” Hampton has commented on how the withdrawal of funding is unfortunate, but has not yet admitted that its own actions were inappropriate.

The ASNE has shown their support for student press by withdrawing funds from Hampton, and other donors to the university should threaten the same. If it will not agree to give its student press more autonomy, Hampton needs to pay a price. The pen may be mightier the sword, but only when it is not sheathed by administrative censorship.