Left poses historic challenge to campus free speech and press

Today’s college journalists are caught in the vortex of an important national debate that threatens the vibrancy of free speech and free press on campus. Limiting the vigor of speech and the press damages society’s capacity to hear the voices of protesters and undermines the university’s role as a forum for open thought.

Here are the forces at play on student journalists:

Leftist protesters – often with social justice on their side – demand student journalists protect them from news coverage that could harm them. They demand photos and names of “marginalized” people involved in protests be withheld because they could be used for discipline or prosecution.  

More special coverage at GJR: Journalism failed the young editors and staffers at The Daily Northwestern–not the other way around

Conservative groups respond that they are the marginalized people on campus. It is the speech of conservatives, such as former Attorney General Jeff Sessions or former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, at risk.

Meanwhile professional journalists insist traditional verities of good journalism are not negotiable. Student journalists should not surrender to pressures to dilute the coverage of campus events by withholding photos and names. 

These conflicting forces prompt student journalists to balance their sympathy for the justice of the leftists’ causes – be they immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights or climate change – with the mission of publishing fair news coverage of campus events. This balancing act can seem especially hard in light of the history of mainstream media as the  province of white men who didn’t always recognize the whole story of society’s injustices.

Students protest outside a talk by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Nov. 5 at Northwestern University. (Photo by Ignacio Calderon)

What gets lost in the debate is the damage a fettered press does to the community’s ability to process the protesters’ grievances. It keeps the press from fulfilling its job in a democracy by holding up a mirror to protests so the public can see.

As passionately as many protesters argue for withholding names and photos, it is counterproductive to their cause because the whole point of protest is to put one’s body and name behind a strongly held grievance and shout out to the world for change.

And when news organizations pull back their coverage by withholding names, photos and information, they risk the one thing most important to reporting – credibility that comes from serving as the community’s independent eyes, ears and conscience.

Events nationwide

This month’s Daily Northwestern coverage of a speech by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions defending President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies brought the conflicting forces into especially sharp focus.

Those same forces are at play in the petition campaign by about 1,000 people against the Harvard Crimson for contacting the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to get a response to protesters seeking ICE’s abolition.  Harvard’s student government recently voted to condemn the Crimson for “actions or politicies that endanger undocumented and immigrant students on campus” and to “commit to journalistic practices that do not put students at risk.”  

Last February at Washington University in St. Louis, a group organized around the hashtag  #ResistWhiteU protested at a diversity day on campus. They interrupted Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori White as she introduced the Day of Discovery Dialogue & Action to discuss diversity and inclusion, unfurling a protest banner in the balcony. Then they objected to the student newspaper, Student Life, publishing a photo of the protest. Protest leaders said, “We reject that we should cater to principles and ideologies that are rooted in our destruction in the name of ‘mutual respect, openness and tolerance.’”  

And four years ago Melissa Click memorably tried to block photographers and videographers covering a public protest by African-American students at the University of Missouri. The communications lecturer was fired.

These are a few of the many examples at campuses around the country where leftists seeking special protection for “marginalized” students have clashed with student journalists employing traditional, ethical newsgathering methods. Whatever happened to the classical civil disobedience of Gandhi and King that involved taking accountability for protests even if that involved jail?  

The trend poses today’s most significant threat to collegiate press and speech rights and the college journalist’s role as an independent observer and reporter.

A First Amendment primer 

The events at Northwestern are a First Amendment primer.

University President Morton O. Schapiro said Young Republicans had every right to bring the former attorney general to campus under school policy, although he questioned whether Sessions was the “right speaker” to invite – whatever that means. Leftist students had every right to protest until they forced their way through closed exits and began to disrupt  the speech. At that point they surrendered the First Amendment protection.

The journalists of the Daily Northwestern went to work the way journalists do – publishing photos to social media, getting statements from student protesters and using university directories to contact protesters.

Then came a blistering response from the protesters who claimed their privacy had been violated and they had been put at risk of discipline. One student, Ying Dai, complained to student photographer Colin Doyle after a photo he had taken and posted showed her on the floor during the protest. She called it “trauma porn.” Doyle removed it.

Then came an extraordinary apology by the staff of the Daily Northwestern. The editors apologized for printing protester photos and names and for using campus directories to contact students involved. Within a few hours hundreds of posts – many from journalists who had graduated from Northwestern – blasted the young journalists for apologizing for doing journalism.

Troy Closson, the student editor, tweeted that as the third black editor in the 135 year history of the Daily Northwestern he felt a “lot of pressure.” 

He described this stress as, “Being in this role and balancing our coverage and the role of this paper on campus with my racial identity – and knowing how our paper has historically failed students of color, and particularly black students, has been incredibly challenging to navigate.”

Writing in The Washington Post, Zach Kessel, a freshman at  Northwestern, described the mood at the paper on the evening after Closson’s post.

“That night, staffers talked about how the ‘old media’ is dead, and that because most of the notable critics of the statement write for legacy print publications, the Daily must be doing something right. What I’m sure they meant is that the new era of journalism should account for the perspectives of people whose voices haven’t been heard in the past…. These are admirable goals. What isn’t admirable is acquiescence. The Daily apologized for standard journalistic practices.”

Free Speech Movement

The events at Northwestern seem like a different world from that of 1960s when anti-war and civil rights leaders led the Berkley free speech movement to guarantee free speech and activism for students on campus. A former movie star made a name for himself criticizing university  officials for not cracking down on the Berkeley protesters. That movie star, Ronald Reagan, won the next race for governor of California.

More special coverage at GJR: Was is lost if photos are pulled to save subject’s pain?

By 1970 anti-war protesters began seeing college newspapers coverage as a threat in much the same way as today’s protesters at Northwestern. They knew university authorities, local police and the FBI wanted to use photos for discipline, prosecution and domestic intelligence gathering. 

The issue came to a head at Stanford University where some radicals backed up their complaints about Stanford Daily photographs by throwing rocks at the photographers. To protect the photographers and to keep from becoming an arm of the police and FBI, the Daily adopted a policy to publish the most newsworthy photos regardless of whether they helped police identify protesters, but destroy negatives of unpublished photos so police couldn’t seize them.

The policy was tested after a violent demonstration at the medical center in April 1971 when police raided the newspaper office looking for evidence to use against protesters who had assaulted officers. In Zurcher v. Stanford Daily, the Supreme Court upheld the search, but Congress overturned the decision by passing the Privacy Protection Act requiring authorities to use less intrusive subpoenas rather than search warrants.

The Stanford events are a reminder that student journalists – like professional journalists – have long had to balance the impact of their work on the people they captured in their lenses, while also applying accepted journalistic practices to publish detailed, authoritative, believable news reports.  

It’s a good preparation for the life of a journalist. Think of the photographs and TV images that have changed the world. Images of Bull Connor’s dogs and fire hoses attacking African-American children and teens who wanted to eat at Birmingham lunch counters. The “napalm girl” running from an attack on her village having torn off her burning clothes. The 14-year-old bending over the dead protester at Kent State after Ohio National Guard officers fired on war protesters.

Mary Ann Vecchio, the girl at Kent State, said for decades that the photo ruined her life. Kim Phuc, the 9-year-old burned by napalm, became a friend of AP photographer Nick Ut and the 1972 photo helped change American’s views of the war. She went on to become a Canadian and a United Nations worker helping war victims.

Some day the Northwestern students will think back on their searing experience with the Sessions coverage and apply the hard-learned lessons about being mindful of the subjects of their journalism but never apologizing for using the journalist method of printing detailed, factual, truthful, independent accounts of events, without fear or favor.

William H. Freivogel is publisher of GJR and president of the board of Washington University Student Media, Inc.  He worked on the Stanford Daily when the photo policy of destroying negatives was issued. His wife, Margaret, was editor when the policy was developed.

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