What Would Jefferson Do?

Ever since my high school assistant principal whipped out her red censor pen and removed anything the least bit offensive from our yearbook, I’ve not been surprised when reactionary academic administrators, even in the face of legitimate legal objections, unapologetically censor and control the student press. During my stint writing editorials for the Los Angeles Times, I discovered how widespread the problem is and how important it is for the courts to stand up for the student press.

Just in California this year, two Palmdale High students were suspended for distributing an underground newspaper on campus. Ignorant of the California Education Code, the principal demanded to approve any new flyers. The students published more, and got suspended again. Sure, some of the material was immature, calling the principal “a tad queer” and a security guard a Nazi. But inappropriate or not, California law offers broad protections for underground student publications.

Then the student paper at the University of California at Santa Cruz had the audacity to put out an annual parody issue that poked fun at administrators and a member of the student government. Offended, the student body official demanded sensitivity classes for the staff of the student paper and the resignation of the editor-in-chief. Never mind that the first amendment certainly enshrines the right to be offensive.

I also found out that my assistant principal tread on dubious legal grounds when she emasculated my high school yearbook a little more than a year ago, though if I had known before, I doubt she would have been receptive to any protest. Even in California, where students enjoy most First Amendment protections on campus, the law is complicated enough for administrators to routinely brush it off with sloppy legal arguments that rarely get tested in court. When a judge does rule, the administrators almost invariably lose.

But California isn’t the only state blessed with overzealous school officials. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals is now considering a case from Governors State University in Illinois, where the dean of student affairs, Patricia Carter, cut off publication of the school paper when the editors refused to stop writing about issues like (gasp) grade inflation. This particular dean must have a warped concept of the role of the student press. She pulled the plug when the college paper started reporting real news.


What is this academic leader trying to teach the students at Governors State University? That avoiding controversy is worth suppressing meaningful debate and sacrificing the free-press rights that should protect these budding young journalists? That, ultimately, a controlled press full of saccharine, unbalanced news is more valuable than a free one in a community of educated people? These sound like the lessons kids in Soviet Russia might have had drummed into their heads.

Carter’s heavy-handed tactics also could have come from an autocrat’s handbook. She called the printer and told him to stop the presses. The printer objected citing the First Amendment, but Carter reminded him that the University was paying, not the students. The paper has not been published since.

Carter should know that a school paper is not merely a platform for University propaganda. The student press should connect the administration to the student body, investigating and exposing problems like grade inflation. Its editorial page should scrutinize school policy, offer solutions and keep University officials accountable and honest. Otherwise there are few checks on the administration, which is there, ostensibly, to serve the students.

But the issue is now up to the courts, and they must decide whether the Supreme Court’s Hazelwood School District vs. Kuhlmeier decision, which gives high school principals power over student publications, applies to college papers. Clearly, the court needs to make a significant distinction between high school broadsheets and college newspapers. College papers are more sophisticated, and certainly more important than their high school counterparts. The reporters and editors are adults, and it’s time they started learning how to be real journalists, not just mouthpieces for the administration. Needless to say, the precedent set by the Seventh Circuit Court will have a broad impact on the rights of the student press on university campuses. The court should guarantee First Amendment protections for college newspapers.

Regardless of how the court rules, though, every citizen should be concerned when our school administrators use such manipulative means to curtail student discourse. First Southern California high-school students get suspended repeatedly in defiance of the California Education Code and college deans stop the presses when the paper reports on real issues. Then impressionable young adults learn to expect sensitivity training when a yearly college parody issue comes out. As adults, perhaps they’ll begin to question why the L.A. Times has the right to run critical editorials.

The massive L.A. Times parking lot has one of Thomas Jefferson’s profound articulations chiseled into its side. His words ought to be written on the walls of every classroom and tattooed onto the hand of every administrator, sort of like a First Amendment “what would Jesus do?” He said, “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Stephen W. Stromberg ’05, a Crimson editor, is a Russian studies concentrator is Adams House.