The executive director of the Student Press Law Center calls the “image obsession” of universities the biggest challenge facing college journalists.

By Alejandro Alvarez

Picture this: campus administrators, in a desperate bid to preserve their reputation, pull funding from student media over an article criticizing safe spaces. Or a faculty advisor, dedicated to coaching students in investigative work, is fired with no warning or cause.

Each of these scenarios reflect challenges facing freedom of student press on college campuses across the country. What is thought by many to be a pressing issue faced in far-away countries under authoritarian regimes also has elements in American society.

In a country whose foundation embodies protection of the press, America’s next generation of journalists is caught in a delicate balancing act between journalistic responsibility and fear of institutional retaliation.

Frank LoMonte wants to fight back against that. As executive director of the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), LoMonte leads what its website bills as the nation’s only legal assistance agency geared toward helping college and high school students “cover important issues free from censorship.”

Since its founding in 1974, LoMonte says SPLC has become a go-to legal resource for students working in campus media. The agency has taken thousands of calls from students and faculty across the country about issues ranging from administrative pressure to disciplinary action faced when reporting a story.

Frank LoMonte is the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, an organization that provides education and legal advice to student journalists (Photo: Courtesy of Frank LoMonte)

Frank LoMonte is the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, an organization that provides education and legal advice to student journalists (Photo: Courtesy of Frank LoMonte)

‘Image obsession’ and campus narcissism

While full-blown censorship in the form of campus authorities directly intervening and shutting down a paper or story is rare, LoMonte said he often hears about cases where campus officials pressure student journalists, media, or faculty into backing away from stories that would cast the school in a negative light.

“Those are the schools that are especially obsessed with their image,” LaMonte said. “Image obsession is the single biggest problem that college journalists are facing.”

Schools that are struggling for money, trying to expand their reputation to a national audience, or don’t have an established journalism program are more likely to be hotspots for pressure on campus press freedom, he said.

According to LoMonte, campuses are becoming “increasingly stingy” with information. Public relations offices are exerting stricter control over access not only by professional media, but also student-run media. In general, campus officials are no longer as willing to provide comment to their own student journalists, opting to preserve a positive campus image rather than provide a learning experience for aspiring reporters.

On a few occasions, students chasing unsavory subjects have even been slapped with disciplinary action.

One example SPLC is following: Mt. San Antonio College in Southern California, where Nick Moore, sports editor for student-run SAC Media, received a disciplinary complaint in the mail last October for asking questions at the student medical center after a medical emergency.

“We don’t comment on student disciplinary actions,” said Mt. San Antonio College when asked for a response. “In general, we are proud of Mt. SAC’s student media, which recently won awards for their important work informing our students and the greater community.”

To LoMonte, reports like these reflect a trend where college campuses are expecting students to represent the college or high school that they attend, a principle which clashes with the crucial pillar of objectivity in responsible journalism.

“Journalists have no obligation whatsoever to make their school look good, or to slant their speech to make their school look good,” LoMonte said. “That mentality is very pervasive, and it’s been drilled into people from the earliest days of their education.”

Trigger warnings: ‘A witch-hunt culture’

Some campus newspapers, through administrative action or student body pressure, have resorted to placing trigger warnings at the top of their articles discussing issues such as sexual assault, discrimination or death.

Policies like these, which SPLC likens to a form of censorship out of George Orwell’s book “1984,” are taking hold on many college campuses, both public and private. Colleges, many of which bill themselves as purveyors of new ideas and academic knowledge, are now taking actions that some perceive to be contrary to that goal.

“We’re in a witch-hunt culture where people believe every act of offensive speech has to result in somebody losing their job or being kicked out of school – that’s really toxic to political debate,” LoMonte said. “The default response when you read something that offends you now is not to write a responsive letter, but demand that the speaker be punished – and that’s a worrying trend not just on college campuses, but on society as a whole.”

That’s also the gist of an ongoing case at the University of California in San Diego, where an article mocking safe spaces published by satirical campus newsletter The Koala led to the administration pulling funding from all student press in retribution. “That’s slam dunk unconstitutional, and a violation of California law,” LoMonte said.