The College Campus Press Act - Another Victory for the First Amendment
The bill was inspired by an incident involving student journalists at Governors State University, where presses were halted by a dean because the paper ran stories critical of the school's administration. Alarmed at this infraction of their First Amendment rights, three students filed suit, but when the Supreme Court refused to hear their case, the Illinois General Assembly took action instead. California lawmakers recently enacted a similar bill, and with such broad support in both houses of the Illinois legislature, it's almost certain that the governor will approve the measure.
As a student journalist for The Daily Illini at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, this legislation strikes a particularly strong chord with me. Having experienced the contentious atmosphere surrounding issues like U of I's Chief Illiniwek and my newspaper's infamous decision to publish cartoons depicting the prophet Mohamed, I understand the potency of the press on a college campus. As with the professional media, it is the role of any school's newspaper to air all legitimate viewpoints - those deemed unpopular and those who question or otherwise oppose school officials are no exception.
But why does it matter? So what if college papers are subject to censorship, so long as their professional counterparts are not? These are just students we're talking about, after all, and some of the hot-button issues that campus newspapers wade into can spark significant debate. Such issues are best left to "legitimate" media outlets, as they might have the potential to distract from the education that's supposed to be going on at our colleges and universities. Right?
I don't think so. For the most part, students who report for their campus news organizations harbor at least some interest in journalism as a career. For these individuals, researching and writing stories for the campus paper is some of the most valuable training they'll ever receive. All of these students will develop habits, techniques and reporting skills that will serve them well into adulthood. How can we expect to breed good journalistic habits if we quash every impulse that sends young minds chasing after divisive or controversial stories? How, once they graduate, can these journalists ask tough questions of public officials and pursue difficult leads if they are never allowed to do so as students?
One old argument states that school newspapers, since they generally receive funding from their host institutions (public or private), are beholden to the wishes of those institutions. (NOTE: While this is true for many publications, it is not true of The Daily Illini specifically, as we are published by the Illini Media Company, which is wholly independent of the University.) Even when a paper is University-funded, however, its freedom should not be abridged. Especially in those cases, the paper can serve as a check against the administration, running critical stories and opinions in order to keep watch over the people entrusted with spending the students' - and/or the state's - money.
Another argument in favor of censorship might be the fact that some issues, when discussed in the school paper, can boil over into the classroom and disrupt ordinary instruction. This is indisputably true - over the past couple of years, I've seen it happen a number of times on the U of I campus. Chief Illiniwek's retirement sparked protests and candlelight vigils, and the D.I.'s coverage of these events got everybody involved - editorials and letters to the editor further divided an already fractured campus. Racial tensions came to a height after our paper (and even national media outlets) picked up a story about a "Tacos and Tequila"-themed party. This sparked demonstrations, a few instances of vandalism, and a campus-wide forum convened by administrators and designed to diffuse these problems. Most famously, during my freshman year, two employees of the paper decided to print a number of cartoons (originally published in Denmark) that had stirred up controversy and caused violent protests all over the world. This decision received national attention, incensed a number of student groups, and even made some reporters afraid that our newsroom would be attacked.
In each of these cases, a University-controlled paper would've carefully sculpted its coverage of the event in question, echoing the administration's position on every issue and shying away from reporting that might incite further controversy. It is likely that such censorship would have resulted in less disruption of ordinary campus life, but it also would have done nothing to encourage the type of debate, critical thinking and engagement that is so valuable in any educational setting. Classroom instruction may be disrupted by noisy protests fueled by an independent newspaper, to be sure - but I contend that there's a good deal of college education that occurs outside the classroom, and of this the paper is an essential component.
In college (and sometimes in spite of college), we learn to live independently, to think for ourselves, and we develop a sense of personal judgment. Essentially, it's "real life" with training wheels. A censored school newspaper, in some ways, certainly ensures a more stable college experience, but it also guarantees a more sheltered existence.
Throughout our college lives, we should be challenging ourselves, opening our minds to new beliefs at the same time that we learn to defend those that come under attack by others. We must learn to deal with difficult problems, engaging in meaningful debate and facing issues that make us uncomfortable.
These harsh realities can be erased from our headlines as undergraduates, but once the "training wheels" come off, we will need to know how to deal with them as adults, whether we like it or not. A free student press can help to train the journalists of tomorrow, encouraging the independence and the desire for accountability that is so valuable in the national media. A free student press can instill the kind of informed engagement and democratic citizenship that is enshrined in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. And perhaps most importantly, a free student press can help us to develop as intellectuals and as people, educating in a way that is seldom possible in any college classroom.
The Illinois General Assembly has taken steps to ensure that these essential rights receive the protection they deserve under Illinois law. Hopefully, more and more states will soon follow in their footsteps.