More Shocking Than Sex: Censorship of Student Journalism

March 29th, 2013 · 1 Comment · journalism

By Denise Tessier

It’s a timely coincidence that the Spring issue of UNM’s alumni magazine Mirage featured four former editors and the current editor of the UNM Daily Lobo addressing the value of “an independent student newspaper.” It’s timely because it came just days before Central New Mexico Community College administrators shut down CNM’s student newspaper, The Chronicle, and confiscated rack copies of the spring issue – one devoted mostly to sex.

Significantly, immediately after The Chronicle’s shutdown, the University of New Mexico’s Daily Lobo suspended its own print edition in a show of solidarity against censorship of CNM’s student publication. The Lobo printed an editorial by Editor-in-chief Elizabeth Cleary on its front page Tuesday, announcing the suspension until The Chronicle was restored; instead of content, black Xs appeared on the Lobo’s inside pages.

Then on Wednesday, former Lobo editor Marisa DeMarco lashed out at CNM’s action in an editorial on New Mexico Compass, saying:

Any journalist not outraged over CNM’s censorship of its student newspaper is in the wrong business.

By Thursday, the immediate matter was resolved: CNM reinstated publication of The Chronicle (administrators on Tuesday had said it would be out of commission at least until summer), confiscated issues were returned and CNM president Kathie Winograd wrote the Chronicle’s 13 staffers that:

I believe as a college we have failed to provide the CNM Chronicle with the level of editorial resources and education that it needs and deserves. I hope that in today’s publication board meeting, the board will discuss ways the college can provide you a better educational experience through your participation with the CNM Chronicle.

On Thursday, the Lobo said it would resume printing, too.

Meanwhile, the publication CNM apparently found offensive reached a greater audience than it normally would, had it not been censored. Beneath a story carried by the national web site Gawker, one CNM student left this comment:

I’m actually taking two classes at CNM right now, and I didn’t realize it had a newspaper until I saw this story on local news last night after class. I’d like to know why the admins would want to kill it the first time it publishes an issue people want to read.

As Albuquerque Journal reporter Astrid Galvan noted on her (first) higher education blog for the paper:

Word got out quickly, first on Twitter and soon on national news, including on Gawker. As a general rule, you don’t want to be on Gawker.

Gawker put the whole incident in perspective, saying CNM’s censorship was more shocking than the subject matter covered in the Chronicle, adding that a college paper devoted mostly to sex is “an annual ritual” and the Chronicle’s version was “rather tame.”

Galvan said as much on her Journal blog:

 The issue is informative and fairly tame, although I got uncomfortable when my editor and I got to the part about the sex toys (it was the day after Passover!).

She quoted Chronicle editor-in-chief Jyllian Roach as saying education was the purpose of the spring issue:

“Many of the things in that issue are things that are not normally discussed,” Roach said. “We thought it was really, really important to get that information out there to students. Part of it is safety. So much of it needs to be about things like communication and understanding and good information, and that’s something that we don’t see a lot of times.”

She’s right. Another commenter on the Gawker article, Sean Brody, was spot-on when he sarcastically wrote about the alternative, saying:

The place for college-aged people to learn about sexuality is in internet pornography, jokey ill-informed discussions with friends and drunken, awkward late-night sexual encounters.
The idea of a college newspaper discussing such a topic in a balanced and informed way should worry us all. . . .

Which brings us back to the four former Lobo editors discussing student journalism. Moderator V.B. Price (editor of the just-launched New Mexico Mercury) had asked: What is the value of an independent student newspaper to a university and to a community such as this?

Charles Poling (Lobo editor 1978-80) answered simply:

We represented the student voice. We covered issues that mattered to (students) and challenged the administration, even on things like tuition hikes.

“By shutting down the paper, even for just a week, they’re silencing the student voice,” Chronicle editor Roach was quoted as saying in New Mexico Compass during the shutdown.

The Albuquerque Journal covered the CNM shutdown with a story on the Metro section front (C1) Wednesday and followed it up with a story about the Chronicle heading “back to the presses” on Thursday.

Galvan’s blog was the closest the paper got to an editorial on the subject, and it reminded me that there was a time when Tony Hillerman, then the state’s elder statesman journalist, might have weighed in on a topic like this with a Journal letter to the editor.

During the Mirage conversation, Wayne Ciddio (Lobo editor 1969-70) said Hillerman was chairman of the Student Publication Board back then:

There was absolutely no attempt to censor or curtail what we were doing. There was a downside too; he allowed us to take our lumps so we could realize we should have thought it through, been a little more moderate.

Carroll Cagle (Lobo editor 1964-65) expressed a similar sentiment in saying independence “is exhilarating but also sobering and daunting because you realize that it is all up to you and your colleagues. We had a great responsibility to do it right.”

It appears that The Chronicle took responsibility to heart and did do the spring issue “right.”

Thursday’s Lobo story by Ardee Napolitano provides an excellent summary of the controversy, including the observation that:

Winograd said CNM condemned the sex edition because it involved an underage student. This allegation was not present in the statements CNM released on the same day of Chronicle’s suspension.

Napolitano further reported that:

The Chronicle’s Editor-in-Chief Jyllian Roach admitted that the newspaper interviewed a 17-year-old student for an article about abstinence. But she said the Chronicle received a letter of consent from the girl’s parents for the publication of the article and that the administration did not ask them about it before suspending the newspaper.

It’s fairly safe to say CNM administration’s change of heart was due in part to support The Chronicle received in the wake of the shutdown. In addition to the Lobo and New Mexico Compass, the Chronicle had support from the Foundation for Open Government’s Gwyneth Doland and the Student Press Law Center.

DeMarco pointed out in her Compass editorial that:

Regardless of where the (newspaper’s) funding comes from, public colleges that allow students to serve as editors of school papers are limited in their ability to censor, according to the Student Press Law Center. Confiscating copies of publications has been prohibited by the courts, as is suspending editors or withdrawing financial support.

As the Supreme Court once said: “Students do not shed their constitutional rights … at the schoolhouse gate.”

DeMarco later added to her post a note addressing CNM’s assertion that the Chronicle staff should be better-trained, quoting the executive director of the Student Press Law Center:

“The First Amendment thankfully doesn’t protect only speech by people that the government subjectively decides, after reviewing their writing, are adequately trained to please the government,” (Frank) LoMonte said. “If there is anyone in desperate need of training, it’s the administration and legal staff at CNMCC, who need to go back and retake high school civics.”

In her Lobo story, Napolitano got a comment from Chronicle faculty adviser Jack Ehn, a former editorial page editor at the Albuquerque Tribune, about CNM’s promises to give student journalists better training:

“UNM has a four-year journalism program, but the (Daily) Lobo still drives the administration crazy,” he said. “I’m not sure how providing the Chronicle some training will suddenly make it not offensive to the administration. It’s not the way it works.”

I’ll leave it to DeMarco to have the last word. From her editorial:

Roach says staff members work hard to train themselves, and it has paid off. Just a few weeks ago, the paper earned a third-place award for Best in Show at the Associated Collegiate Press Journalism Conference. “A lot of people think we’re doing it right.”

CNM students, faculty and staff—along with other free speech supporters and fellow journos—should speak out in support of restoring The Chronicle. Independent media will only survive as long as there are people willing to stand up for it.

Consider it done.

 

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One Comment so far ↓

  • James D. Robertson

    This is how it is – if I OWN the press I’ll say what’s going to be printed on it! You may regard this as my right of free speech!
    If you OWN the press that gives you the right to print as you see fit. I will make no attempt to interfere with your choice of subject. However, in the case at hand, I have yet to see one dime being offered to procure a press by the offended parties allowing them to print what they please. I wonder how far beyond gratuitous rhetoric the naysayers will go to defend the “right of free speech.” To paraphrase a verse or two from the book of James: Be you a doer of the word and not a sayer only. Until I see boots on the ground I consider this whole incident an exercise in cowardice. I’ll tell you this – if I were a parent seeing a college endorsed edition of it’s official paper used as a thinly disguised sex manual – I’d be considering other venues for my kids. And let’s don’t label college age kids as adults – they are essentially “adult bodies with none of the experience or the intelligence to make sound decisions.”

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