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Two Kinds of Shields


By Robert Decherd

THE HYSTERIA ABOUT shield laws for newspaper reporters has subsided since the national media saturated American readers in January and February with argument and counter-argument on its First Amendment sanctity.

Almost half of the states are likely to adopt at least a partial shield for reporters; some have passed legislation giving newsmen full protection of sources before grand juries and other judiciary bodies.

In Congress, several shield bills are still under consideration, and one is likely to pass within the year. Whichever bill emerges is certain to have immediate import because it will apply a national standard by which the courts can judge confidentiality.

Meanwhile a few newspaper publishers have joined the fray finally, taking upon themselves liability for the protection of sources used by their own reporters. In many instances now, the publisher, not the reporter, is the one who will be held in contempt of court if a court order to violate confidentiality is ignored, and there is a lot of difference between sending Punch Sulzberger to jail and sending one of the 300 reporters in his employ.

This is all well and good. But amid the debate over confidentiality, one sector of the news media has received only cursory attention -- the college press.

It is an understandable oversight, because among the nation's 500 college publications and broadcast stations, few enjoy the stature or freedom of movement necessary to test confidentiality. Only a handful of college newspapers could ever get to print a story controversial enough to make the protection of sources an important question.

For this very reason, though, the neglect of the college press as an important substratum of the national media is unfortunate: Overall, it is probably the most tightly-controlled segment of expressed opinion in the United States today.

College student publications print for the most part information screened by a faculty advisor. Or else, publications tied to the school administration through subsidies think hard before printing anything which might provoke administration reprisals. It has not been unusual, particularly in the uneasy days of the late 60s and early 70s, for administrators to threaten, intimidate and even punish student editors by withholding or withdrawing funds.

Student publications generally face difficult choices when confronting administrators with "unpleasant" information. The logic used against editors by regents and school officials is that since the state (i.e., the taxpayers) supports the publications through subsidies, the editors should be responsible to the administration.

This logic, which serves mainly to retard students' development as even-handed journalists, often boils down to printing inoffensive material vis-a-vis the administration, or becoming an off-campus, independent publication. (The administrative catch phrase for deviant editors is "irresponsible.") For most college papers, though--indeed all but a scarce few -- the start-up costs of independent publication and the subscription revenue needed to sustain independence are prohibitive.

It is curious that the large, daily press has given so little attention to the predicament of college papers, especially when the press raises so much hell about its own problems after the government moves to gain some leverage against it. So it was reassuring last week to find a Federal Appeals Court addressing the relationship of college newspapers to administrators.

Fourth Circuit Chief Judge Clement Haynsworth, one of Nixon's aborted Supreme Court Justices, ruled that funds for the operation of a campus newspaper cannot be cut off solely because college officials disagree with the newspaper's editorial opinions. The wording was exceedingly plain: "[College administrators] can't withhold funds just because they don't like what a campus paper prints."

Haynsworth's opinion restricts its precedent to colleges connected with state governments. But because state universities are most subject to public opinion and political innuendo, campus newspapers at state-operated institutions have been subject to the most administrative meddling in the past decade. The notable examples have been:

* In 1970, the University of California system forced out the management of the Daily Californian at Berkeley after the paper editorially endorsed a "re-opening" of People's Park in Berkeley (the re-opening turned into a small riot). After installing a new editor-in-chief, the university gave the paper a choice: accept a faculty advisor or move off campus. It was no choice: after an uphill fight, the paper became financially and editorially independent of the school.

* In 1971, the regents at the University of Texas threatened to halt publication of the Daily Texan when the paper ran a factually-correct story stating that the regents had misappropriated almost $600,000 for a new chancellor's mansion. The regents had never liked the paper's anti-war editorials anyway. In turn, the Daily Texan sued the regents and the university system. Legal costs and bleak financial projections for an off-campus operation forced a settlement whereby the paper accepted joint editorial control with the faculty.

* Late in 1971, the Florida regents moved to gain control of the Daily Alligator at the University of Florida when the paper violated a 10-year-old state statute forbidding publication of advertisements containing abortion information. The Florida attorney general then ruled the statute unconstitutional. The regents perservered, despite continued support of the paper by the attorney general, and imposed an administrative assistant as editor-in-chief. The staff, in a joint suit with Sigma Delta Chi, the national journalistic society, sued the regents.

* At North Carolina Central University, the object of Haynsworth's opinion, the university president halted state funds to the Campus Echo after the paper editorially opposed an increased flow of white students into the predominantly black school. The president, Albert N. Whiting, said the editorial policy was racist and failed to "represent fairly the full spectrum of views" on the campus.

Haynsworth concluded that Whiting's action amounted to unlawful suppression of students' rights and violated the paper's First Amendment rights. Reversing a lower court decision, he and Judge John D. Butzner found that the Echo posed "no apparent danger of physical violence or disruption" at the university and thus could not be suppressed.

The opinion leaves open the possibility that a college paper could overstep its bounds by advocating "disruption," but it remains an important milepost for student editors. The only other recent instance in which a student newspaper has been so forcefully defended came when Stanford University, despite alumni objections, financially supported the Stanford Daily in a suit against the county sheriff's office following an illegal police raid on the paper's photo files in 1971.

But Stanford is a private institution and there are others of its caliber, Harvard included, which would probably take similar action under the same circumstances. Judge Haynsworth has provided relief for the much larger group of state university papers which now have a shield of their own against high-handed administrators and regents with political clout.

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