Black College Wire

Battling Censorship of Campus Publications

The calls come in by the dozen each week at the Student Press Law Center (SPLC). Often frantic and seeking legal advice, student journalists and their advisers find their way to Mark Goodman, executive director of this nonprofit group that defends students� First Amendment rights.

Goodman, 45, has seen an increase in calls to the center about censorship over his 20 years there. High school and college papers also ask about freedom of information, libel, copyright and privacy issues, but censorship prompts more than a third of all calls.

And while censorship can occur at any college publication, students at historically black colleges might be disproportionately affected, Goodman said during an interview from his office in Arlington, Va.

�On many [black college] campuses, administrators are extremely sensitive to the public image of the institution because they have received so little respect for many years from the rest of the world,� he said. �It really is a direct consequence of any organization that has felt beleaguered and unappreciated. They�re going to be more sensitive to criticism even when it comes from within.�

The Student Press Law Center doesn�t gather statistics comparing incidents at historically-black colleges with others, so Goodman�s observation is based on the center�s work in the last decade on behalf of newspapers, including The Script at Hampton University, The Spokesman at Morgan State University, The Peachite at Fort Valley State University and The Famuan at Florida A&M University. (See a list of historically-black universities that have contacted the SPLC.)

The overall increase in censorship cases might be a sign that more students are aware of their rights and are willing to do something about them, suggested Adam Goldstein, a new-media specialist among the organization�s nine lawyers and interns.

From 1993 to 2003, the last full year for which statistics at the Student Press Law Center are available, the number of censorship-related calls rose from 545 to 876. Additionally, in 2003, the center received 2,471 total requests for legal advice, and 38 percent were about censorship. In addition to students realizing their rights, Goodman saw two other possible explanations:

First, school administrators are focusing their energy on fund raising and starting to see their roles as that of CEOs. Therefore, �They treat dissent as criticism and, like a CEO, they�ll fire people,� Goodman said. �This doesn�t work when you�re running an education system. You have to model certain democratic values.�

The problem is, �When you censor, everybody loses,� Goodman cautioned.

Because society is becoming more critical of the mainstream media, he added, the negative attitude might have trickled down to student media, inviting more attempts by student and university governments to control what students publish.

�As a journalism student, you feel like you�re fighting a giant all the time,� said Talia Buford, editor of The Script. �It�s good to have someone in your corner to fight the battle with you.� Buford called Goodman in 2003 when Hampton University�s acting president confiscated 6,500 issues of the newspaper�s homecoming edition because the editors would not publish a letter from the acting president on the front page. The Student Press Law Center has supported the editors at the private, historically black university with legal advice and publicity intended to keep the news industry and the public focused on the newspaper�s rights.

Among the most difficult censorship cases, Goodman said, are those dealing with advisers being fired because of the content of the paper. Often, �It�s legally permissible but you know it�s wrong,� he said. �It�s very frustrating.�

One such case was that of John F. Schmitt, former adviser of The Peachite at Fort Valley State University, a small historically-black school in Georgia. The university had not renewed Schmitt�s contract in 1998 because of his refusal to censor the paper, which published articles that were critical of administrators. He sued and in 2002, won a $192,000 award, the largest of its kind. The settlement agreement included new guidelines to protect free speech and job security for advisers at The Peachite.

�Every time these cases come to the public�s attention and they�re resolved successfully, it continues one of the very principles our country was founded on, the First Amendment,� said Kathy Lawrence, president of College Media Advisers, a national journalism educators group. �It�s the fuel that keeps this democracy humming along.�

Goodman hasn�t had 20 years of straight victory: A low point came in 1988, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Hazelwood vs. Kuhlmeier that high school officials with �substantial and reasonable� cause could censor a public school-sponsored publication that is �inconsistent with its basic educational mission.� The ruling does not apply to colleges, but some try to use it to justify their censorship attempts.

Over the years, the Student Press Law Center has developed strategies to fight back. Having frank discussions with school administrators about the students� rights can often lead to compromises or decisions that support student publications. Other times, it is necessary to embarrass a university publicly over its censorship.

Sometimes, as when 6,000 copies of The Herald were stolen recently by a fraternity at Arkansas State University, a newspaper just wants guidance. �There needs to be a central place to get sound advice, particularly about legal issues,� said the adviser, Bonnie Thrasher. �None of us are that familiar with dealing with it. The SPLC serves as that place.�

Goodman never expected to make a career of SPLC advocacy.

He grew up on a cattle farm in Versailles, Mo., where his father subscribed to eight newspapers.

While a journalism student at the University of Missouri, he got a scoop about a prostitution ring on campus. �If you write this story, be prepared to go to jail,� a lawyer told him when he sought advice. As he was in the midst of applying to law school, he decided to drop the story.

�To this day, I regret that decision,� Goodman added. �I would�ve rather gotten advice as to finding a solution for writing the story. Instead, this lawyer scared me off from doing the story.�

An internship at the Student Press Law Center gave him a chance to be the giver of advice, and paved the way to his future career. He became SPLC�s director in 1985 and it was his first job out of college.

�When I came here, I only planned to stay for two to three years, but it�s 20 years later and I�m still here,� Goodman said. �Frankly, though, I don�t think I�ll ever find work more satisfying than this.�

Voting at HBCUs Hit Record Levels

After months of on-campus voter registration drives, rallies led by celebrities and courting by candidates, the ranks of young voters swelled to record levels, according to reports from HBCU newspapers and mainstream news media.

While many colleges reported that voting went smoothly, long lines were common. At some schools, mix-ups delayed or prevented some students from voting.

Many students ran into problems proving they were eligible to vote. Some were told that they brought inadequate identification to the polls. Others said they had registered but discovered their names were not recorded in their precinct's lists. A few reported problems with voting machines and misunderstandings about the provisional ballots. And some alleged voter intimidation took place when poll watchers challenged the students' right to vote.

Meanwhile, there were reports of improvements at two schools where there were voting difficulties in 2000. Here are snapshots from across the country:

Albany State University: A controversy erupted at the polling station serving Georgia's Albany State University, where "a lot of students were not permitted to vote because they were not registered in Dougherty County," reports Ashley Hindsman, editor of The Student Voice. Cassandra Lewis, Student Government Association president, and Portia Holmes Shields, president of the university, contacted local officials asking for more provisional ballots to be sent to the school, Hindsman reported.

Benedict College: Republican poll watchers challenged the legality of dozens of voters, many of them students, temporarily delaying their casting ballots, reported The State newspaper of Columbia, S.C. A U.S. congressman who was at the precinct told The State that the poll watchers were disenfranchising voters. Students could use provisional ballots, which later could be challenged, said Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C.

Bethune-Cookman College: Students turned out to let their voices be heard, some during early voting, others on Election Day. Jeanne Erfurt, a volunteer election official, estimated that by early afternoon, close to 500 students had voted.

For a few, getting the vote in was not so easy. "At the beginning of the semester, I registered to vote through a voters drive aimed at students, but I never received confirmation in the mail," said Kofi Jack, a junior from Jacksonville, Fla. Instead, Jack was told on voting day to use a provisional ballot. He did.

Students who were turned away had access to on-site counseling from attorneys Rick Posen and Steve Powell. They encouraged the students to fill out the provisional ballots despite any conflicting information the students might have received.

Dillard University: State and city officials were not in agreement about the cause of the delays at the polling stations for Dillard and nearby Xavier University of Louisiana.

Outside the polling place, a public library across the street from Dillard's campus, the young voters huddled under umbrellas for up to five hours.

Julie C. Andrews, election commissioner-in-charge for the precinct serving Dillard, told the school's Courtbouillon newspaper that turnout from the university is typically less than 500 people. By Nov. 2, however, roughly 1,800 Dillard students were registered, and Andrews anticipated about 1,500 arriving to vote.

An estimated 57 percent of the registered voters showed up, compared with a 16 percent turnout during a local election in September, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported.

Andrews praised the massive student turnout. She also noted that many students did not carry adequate identification. "The problem I see, particularly with the Dillard students, is that they have not read, or they have not even paid attention to what was going on on TV. Most of the people that came in from the community were prepared. They came in with their voter registration card and IDs and were ready to go."

Florida A&M University: Students were spared a repeat of the 2000 national election, when dozens were wrongly turned away from the polls by officials who claimed the students were not registered to vote. That incident prompted hundreds to sit in at the state Capitol in Tallahassee. Local and national voter protection groups vowed they would monitor the 2004 election to prevent voter disenfranchisement. The Famuan student newspaper reported long lines, but otherwise uneventful voting Nov. 2.

Still, the election season was not problem-free: In October, the Associated Press reported on a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation of 1,500 suspicious voter registration forms that designated Florida students as Republicans. Most were students at FAMU, Florida State University or Tallahassee Community College, the report said. By calling students, authorities determined that many of the suspicious registrations were false.

North Carolina A&T State U.: Chief elections judge Dawnita Lawrence told the A&T Register that the student turnout was possibly the largest ever.

"It is a pleasure to see so many youth dedicated to voting," said Dorothy Brown, a longtime community activist in the Greensboro area and poll observer on campus. The Nov. 2 turnout was the biggest she had seen since she started observing polls in 1978, she said.

Along with standing in line for hours, many students had to wait for poll officials to verify that they were properly registered. Ron Carthen, a senior journalism major with a broadcast-production concentration, was one of the last students to vote. After being in line more than two hours, he was forced to vote using a provisional ballot because of confusion about his registration. Although he had to fill out additional paperwork, he expected his vote to count.

"It should," Carthen said. "It better."

One of the most common problems students faced was proving their residency, said Jennifer Weiser, a lawyer at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law who specializes in student voting rights. This year, national voting law required first-time voters who registered by mail to present identification. But states decided what type of I.D. would be acceptable, so the rules differed across the country, she said. Some places did not accept college identification cards. Some turned students away if they could not present identification showing a local address.

Prairie View A&M University: A nationally watched showdown over students' voting rights culminated Nov. 2 with record numbers of Prairie View students going to the polls. The Panther newspaper reported that by 1 p.m., more than 1,000 students had voted at the Waller County Community Center.

A high turnout had been predicted after students' victory this year against the county's former district attorney, who had publicly threatened to prosecute Prairie View students who attempted to register in a local March primary.

He claimed, wrongly, that the students could not declare residency. Students sued, alleging voter intimidation, and held a march. Texas' secretary of state ultimately upheld the students' right to vote.

According to Weiser, the New York University lawyer who tracks student voter disenfranchisement, the federal law allows students to register and vote in the place they consider home, which can be their campus community. That is where many live for more than 10 months a year, hold jobs, pay local taxes and are affected by the decisions of local officials, she said. "What states and localities cannot do is presume that a student is a resident of wherever their parents live, and put the burden on the student to prove that he lives in the college community," she said.

Though the students prevailed in defending their right to vote in Waller County, they were unsuccessful in their additional campaign to get an on-campus polling place.

Xavier University: At a precinct serving Xavier University, the last vote was cast a little after 1:30 a.m., about six hours after polls were scheduled to close.

By some estimates, 75 percent of registered voters turned out.

For some voters, the wait was eight hours.

The exact cause of the delays remained unknown a week after the election. Louisiana and New Orleans officials offered the news media a variety of theories.

Some said the polls were overwhelmed by the huge turnout, or questioned the staffing and equipping of the polling station. But others said that some of the students might not have been properly registered during massive campus voter registration drives, causing delays when poll commissioners tried to verify the registrations. Also, the phone lines to the registrar of voters were clogged throughout the day, slowing the verifications, reported the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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