Over a year ago, in one of his newsletters to the entire college, our president informed us that no college employee may speak directly to any member of the press, including the student media. He has claimed in an email to me later that he was just enforcing an already existing policy, but he took what was a rarely enforced policy and not only insisted on its enforcement, but interpreted its strictures far more extremely than its original language ever allowed. Though I am no longer the advisor of a student paper, I still teach the News Writing and Reporting course, and I keep in touch with the succeeding advisors. My news writing students have to work with the newspaper editors and submit their articles for the class to the newspaper, so I was alarmed by this decree, which is basically an employee gag order that implies that no employee can give his or her own opinion about something to any media (except for a human interest story, like a profile), which is a violation of our First Amendment rights. This is a public college which accepts federal and state money, so it is bound by the Constitution in ways private colleges and businesses are not. Legally, as long as we make it clear that we are stating our own opinions, not speaking on behalf of the college, we have the right to say whatever we want. (For the record here, I am not speaking on behalf of my college. This entire essay is my own opinion.) The written policy in its legal form actually states this, as well. Whoever wrote the original policy understood the boundaries of the First Amendment and the dangers of a lawsuit. However, the administration of the college and the PR office (ironically now titled the OCA - Office of College Advancement) have ignored that section of the policy in their enforcement of it.
According to an email to me from a student staff member of one of the campus papers (we have two papers, one for each of the two largest campuses), shortly after the president's original announcement, the PR staff met with the student editors of both campus papers and convinced them that it was better to work completely through the PR office so they would not receive wrong information from the wrong people and wouldn’t be held responsible for bad information in their stories. Unfortunately, many of the students believed them and thought this was great. The public relations office would supposedly send them to appropriate sources, guaranteeing the accuracy of the information – less work, less time, and less responsibility. Even when I pointed out the fallacies in this, such as the need for access to any source on campus, their levels of responsibility to double-check information no matter where their sources came from, and the need to vet sources for hidden agendas, most insisted on believing this was in their best interests because the director of the PR office told them it was. Some had never taken a journalism course so they didn't understand the journalistic ethics they were compromising and how all this shortchanges the quality of their learning experience. Others were, perhaps, afraid to cause any more conflict, or perhaps didn't believe that ethical ramifications really matter in college. However, if students don't learn ethics and professional standards in college, how likely are they to abide by ethics in their careers, later, and what price will they pay for that? As the year went on, though, many of those students discovered that the more they dealt with the PR office, the more difficult their jobs became and that obstructionism and a desire to control the media guide those offices' policies and behaviors, not a desire to serve students. That is not how an effective or successful journalism program operates.
This has curricular ramifications, too. The news writing course and journalism workshops require students to write articles of varying kinds of news for the student media. Unfortunately, newspapers and other media are not built with human interest stories, alone, which is the only type of story for which employees are allowed to freely interview. Students need to write about college related news. This means talking to sources. So, in effect, the president and other administrators involved in perpetuating this policy are interfering in the academic quality of a course and making it far more difficult for the students than it should be.
Would any faculty member tolerate an equivalent policy created for another major? If a chemistry student were to make some kind of serious mistake in a lab experiment, which caused a small fire or some other kind of damage to a chemistry lab, would anyone tolerate a policy that was then enacted, requiring someone from security or a different but related discipline to first examine all labs before students could do any experiments to ensure that the equipment was set up correctly? Would anyone tolerate if that person then insisted on watching over all student experiments, and then prohibited the students from using certain chemicals anymore because those were potentially dangerous? And would anyone tolerate it if the students were forced to submit their lab notes to security or some other entity who was not their professor for approval before they wrote up their lab reports? Why have so many accepted similar kinds of prohibitive policies for the journalism students?
When he first announced this policy, I wrote an email to the president who revealed in his reply the real reason for all of this: “We had an unfortunate situation to occur a few months ago … the employee shared erroneous information with the student newspaper. Because the student newspaper is read by many – including HACC Board of Trustees and external media professionals – this article caused problems for the College. If the student newspaper had coordinated with the Office of College Advancement, the Office of College Advancement would have ensured that complete and accurate information was shared with the student newspaper.” So the bottom line is that this policy is a punitive action against all student reporters on all campuses for a mistake one student made in an article. Punitive action against student media is illegal, according to LoMonte of the SPLC. In my response to the above mentioned email, I explained to the president that the appropriate response to a mistake made in a newspaper is to ask the students to write a correction in the next issue. As far as I know, he did not do that before resorting to his extreme actions against the media.
In the past year, student reporters have had to ask for permission to interview anyone on campus and submit their interview questions to the PR office as part of that permission process. A few students told me that sometimes they have had to wait for responses from the PR office so long that they had to abandon hope of interviewing that person in order to meet a deadline. This is the kind of control that no reputable reporter would ever submit to. And what did the students learn from this? They learned that our administrators care more about protecting themselves and controlling information than they do about students learning how to interview sources and write articles.
The PR office claims it requires all professional media to abide by the same rules, yet so far, no one has given me the name of any reporter who has asked the PR office for permission to interview someone, agreed to submit the interview questions to the PR office to approve, and/or agreed to interview someone in place of the person whom they asked to interview. I emailed a variety of local media, establishing that I was writing on my own behalf, not the college's, telling them about the policy, and asking them the following specific questions:1) Would/have you or any of your reporters ever submit/submitted all of your questions for an interview to the PR office of the college, or anywhere, or even to the person you want to interview before the interview to be vetted and approved by them? 2) Would/have you or your reporters ever sought permission from the PR office of the college or anywhere else before interviewing someone? 3) Would you be satisfied to only interview someone a PR office decided was the only person you would be allowed to interview? And what if you wanted to interview someone else?
None of the media representatives who responded, so far, seemed to know anything about this policy, and all expressed concerns. Cate Barron, the Vice President of Content/PA Media Group, PENN Live, and The Patriot News, wrote: "1) No. 2) We certainly might make use of the PR or admin offices in our efforts to reach HACC officials, faculty, etc. They can be helpful conduits. But do we “seek permission” in doing so? No. 3) “Allowed” to interview? See answer to #2. But again, would note that in some cases just one contact might suffice and that contact might have come through the PR office. If we determined we needed to talk to others for a more complete story we would certainly not hesitate to do so whether admin “allows” us to do so or not."
Because the administrators are more interested in preserving their own images rather than the learning and academic experience of the students, they have attempted to control the student media and, perhaps, professional media. The result of this will inevitably lead to much less positive media coverage in both student and professional media. If professional media are being forced to follow the same procedures, then I guarantee that the college is losing opportunities because it is driving away reporters who might otherwise give positive press coverage for events or successes that would usually get publicized in the local media. That is a destructive policy, not a constructive one.
The issue also raises questions as to why the president of the college, someone who is supposed to be trained and experienced in dealing with the press, would be so afraid of student journalists that he needs to have all questions and answers prepared ahead of any interview. Why are he and the PR office so afraid of letting employees talk to reporters? Why doesn’t the PR office just train employees to talk with the media? Is it really probable that vice presidents, deans and other staff or faculty don't know how to talk to students? What information is the administration afraid will get out? How negative is this information if the president, trustees and other administrators are so afraid that they are willing to risk a lawsuit by violating employees' rights to free speech? Most importantly, these are the very people who have been entrusted with the administration of a nonprofit, educational institution, whose jobs are to ensure the college is educating students effectively. Why are these administrators more concerned with the college’s image in student newspapers or other media than what the student journalists learn?
It is my job, the media advisors' jobs, and the college's responsibility to teach students best practices of journalism. That means teaching that it is not ethical or professional to allow anyone to control what they research and write or how they conduct an interview, especially what they ask in that interview, whether that involves the government, a corporation, or the administration of a college. The Founding Fathers believed a free and unhindered press was an essential element of a democracy, serving as its "watchdogs." Hence, the press is often referred to as the Fourth Estate. Now, I'm not naive enough to think our college or any other is a democracy. However, at a minimum, colleges are supposed to be preparing our students for the careers in the majors they are studying under our direction. We should also be preparing them to be critical thinkers and productive citizens in an increasingly polarized democracy. What are they learning if we force student media to be completely controlled by the administration? That the media is really just another conduit for public relations? That the media should be the voice of the administration, not the audience which it serves? Despite much public cynicism and criticism leveled at the American press over the past decade or so, that is NOT the role of a free press, and most professional media take that seriously. The lessons our students are learning from the administrators of this college and others who engage in this kind of censorship are harmful to their future success. But that's just my opinion.