The Debate Over Collegiate Journalism

Steve Sheridan

In the last three weeks, there have been some interesting developments in the world of collegiate journalism. In the February 9 edition of The Daily Illini, the student newspaper of the University of Illinois, it republished some of the now-infamous Danish cartoons that depicted the Prophet Muhammad. As a result of this, a group of university alumni and faculty members that oversee the newspaper suspended the editor-in-chief and the opinion editor. Another incident, and one that has potentially far-reaching implications, was the Supreme Court’s decision not to hear a case involving reporters at Governors State University in Illinois. The students had sued the university because, after the students wrote articles that harshly criticized the administration in 2000, the school’s dean demanded to review all future editions of the newspaper before they went to print.

Both of these incidents strike at the heart of collegiate journalism: the ability for students to express their beliefs without fear of administrative reprimand or censorship. The issue surrounding the Danish cartoons, which by now are widely distributed for all to see, is clearly a case of the administration overreacting to a potentially volatile political situation. Administrators from the university argued that a dialogue over the cartoons could have taken place without actually showing the cartoons themselves, but what good is debating a depiction if you are unable to show it? The debate is not whether one agrees with the content of the cartoons – although the publication of the drawings might imply a certain acceptance, if not approval, of them – but whether a school has any right to interfere with the freedom of the press that expressly allows the paper to print such things if it so desires. Such limitations and the knee-jerk reactions to them are frankly unacceptable in an American society that so values the freedom of the individual and of the press.

As reactionary as that decision was, however, it is the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case of the Governors State students that should be stressed. The administration at the University Park, Illinois, school is essentially saying to its student body that nobody can criticize the university in any form without formal censure or suppression. This is wrong. Without the ability to speak freely on topics of their own choosing, the writers at the school are being bullied by a group of higher-ups that, fairly or unfairly, ultimately control the ability of the individual students to participate in the activities of or even attend the school. Such tactics strike a huge blow to the cause of student journalism specifically and the cause of a free press as a whole.

Here in Hamilton, The Colgate Maroon-News prides itself on being completely student-run and its independence from the administration. It is this independence that allows us to express all manners of opinion regarding campus, national and international events, and to do so without fear of reprimand. But just because we currently enjoy a good relationship with the school, however, does not mean that the potential for conflict will not appear in the future. With the lack of action on the part of the Supreme Court and the rash action on the part of the Illinois administration, there will always remain a possibility – on this campus and on all others around the country – that students will be penalized for expressing a opinion that is contrary to that of those in power. Such a situation should never be allowed to occur.

In their lawsuit, the students stated that the mission of their newspaper, The Innovator, was to give “the university community the ability to receive news and information about the university uncensored by the institution itself.” This in itself does not seem like an unrealistic expectation. As last year’s fraternity controversy proved, any campus is ultimately enriched by the exchange of ideas and the cultivation of intelligent debate between differing sides. If schools around the country use the Supreme Court’s refusal as a precedent, however, that exchange of ideas could be greatly threatened. With such a threat comes the endangerment of one of America’s most cherished and oft-cited tenets. While The Innovator or the Maroon-News may not have the cache of The New York Times, these college newspapers and all others should continue to have the ability to provide independent opinion without fear of administrative reprisal for years to come.