Before I can teach you how to vanquish Ninja College Censorship, grasshopper, I must first describe its evil ways. For it is the elegant art
of censoring without censoring, and its masters are formidable foes.
Long ago, when you were a mere fetus-journalist, I grappled with the Ninja Censors. But now I am weary. The time has come, little one, for you to champion our noble struggle.
The United Nations has declared this very day World Press Freedom Day. It is both a sign of your destiny and one hell of a news peg.
So let us begin.
First, know this: College administrators no longer censor student media by proclaiming, “Hey, we’re about to censor student media over here! Come look at us censoring! Whee, it’s a lot of fun!”
That’s so 1985. Like racism and cocaine, no one does that publicly anymore. Racists have their code words, cocaine addicts have their denials, and censors have their deceptions. Here are their deadliest moves, in order of lethality, and how you can counter them…
1. The Student Affairs Flying Fists of FUD (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt)
Why censor when you can menace? The very first maneuver is always to intimidate students into censoring themselves.
At Florida Atlantic University, where I’ve advised the newspaper for 12 years, the bullying has been refined into an art form. Perhaps you’ll recognize some of these smooth moves:
1. A secretary in Student Affairs calls the newsroom. “The dean would like to meet with you tomorrow.” (It’s always within 24 hours, forcing you to drop everything – and reinforcing who’s boss.)
2. If you ask what the meeting’s for, the secretary says she doesn’t know. (The editor and/or myself usually called the dean’s cell, but the answer was always, “Just want to talk about the newspaper, that’s all.”)
3. The editor and I arrive at the appointed time and cool our heels in the waiting room for no less than 10 minutes. A secretary emerges and leads us into an office. We’re alone. Fanned out on the table are several copies of our latest offending issue.
4. A few minutes later, two deans stroll in and engage in exactly two minutes of small talk – “Paper going well?” “You feeling good?” – before the senior dean’s smile disappears, everyone stops talking, and he leans toward the editor…
5. “I’ve heard some very disturbing things about your latest issue,” he says, pointing to one or more articles that “cast the university in a negative light.” The other dean asks, “Why would you do this?”
6. As you explain watchdog journalism, the deans interrupt to ask questions so vague that, no matter how you answer, they can pick you apart: “What’s your philosophy of journalism?” “Where are you trying to take the paper?” “What’s your definition of student media?”
7. As you stutter through your responses, the deans blurt out that you’ve embarrassed both the school and yourself. “You represent this university,” they admonish. “You need to remember that.”
8. Then the mood shifts on a dime. “We like you,” they coo, pointing to the paper on the table. “We just don’t like this.” They put a hand on your shoulder, escort you out of the office, and the smiles return. “Listen, if you need anything, call my secretary and I’ll make sure you get right through. You need money for new office furniture? Food for staff meetings? We just want to help.”
And that’s it. Until the next time you don’t properly “represent the university.” Then the psychological warfare begins anew.
repel with: Laughing Hyena Shrug of Defiance
To defeat the deans, try reverse psychological warfare:
1. Make ′em wait. When the secretary calls, politely reply, “We’re on deadline for our next issue and can’t possibly meet tomorrow. How about later in the week?” The dean can’t accuse you of lying because he knows nothing about your newsroom and even less about journalism. Yet you’ve ever-so-slightly altered his trajectory, and sometimes that’s enough to throw him off his game.
2. Employ the buddy system. Never go into a hostile meeting without a friendly witness. FAU editors usually invited me, but sometimes they brought along the managing editor. Once last summer, the VP of Student Affairs forbade a witness – and the editor simply refused to show up. The VP backed down, of course. What else could he do? Our editors know…
3. Never fear Student Affairs. It’s illegal for administrators to censor a student paper for content they don’t like. (See the Student Press Law Center for details.) And if they threaten you with retribution because you’ve audaciously committed an act of journalism, know this: You’ve got friends in low places. When administrators threatened our editor last June, they received very public letters from the president of the Society of Professional Journalists and the executive director of the SPLC. And they backed down – intimidating students is one thing, pissing off litigious media attorneys is quite another.
4. Resent the representing. Last year, the Student Affairs VP told our editor, “I tell students all the time, ‘Remember you represent FAU, and you don’t want to create a red eye for the university.’ That’s one of my taglines: You represent FAU.” And I tell editors all the time: You don’t represent FAU. You’re paying FAU. If anything, FAU should be representing you. If it isn’t, you just found your next big story.
5. Savor the experience. If you can deftly navigate meetings like this, no conversation will ever paralyze you. So have some fun. My favorite personal example: In 2008, the editor and I were summoned to a typical Student Affairs meeting, and the dean asked the editor a typically vague question…
“Michele, do you want the UP to be The New York Times or the National Enquirer?”
Michele shot back, “Actually, I’d like it to be a little bit of both.”
The dean shook his head and muttered, “No.” Then, inevitably, he turned in my direction.
“Don’t look at me,” I replied. “I’ve freelanced for both The New York Times and the National Enquirer.”
That’s when I knew I’d be fired one day. (See No. 5 below.)
2. The Leaping Logic Sucker Punch of Savage Misspelling and Bad Grammar
There are three iron-clad certainties on a college campus…
The only parking after 10 a.m. is in a half-mile from your classroom, no one outside of Student Government knows the name of the student body president, and an accurate investigation in the student newspaper will always be met with, “Yeah, but you spelled a word wrong on page 12, so you have no credibility at all.”
In the most extreme case I’ve ever heard, someplace called the Milwaukee Area Technical College yanked an issue right off the press without telling the staff – so administrators could “proofread for grammatical stuff,” according to the vice president of Student Services.
Apparently, the VP asked the staff to “put a plan in place” to improve the grammar.
“When I found out that that had not been done when it was at the printer, I asked that it be pulled until that had happened,” he said.
The paper had copyeditors, of course. They simply made some mistakes – at a student newspaper where the staff is learning how to become journalists. Imagine that.
repel with: Hawkeye Face Kick of Delicious Irony
Do something no student – and apparently no administrator – has ever dared attempt before. Proofread your own university’s website. Then helpfully tell administration what you’ve discovered.
Our staff also turned its copyediting eye (and camera lens) to campus signs. My favorite was this one, announcing the cancellation of an event with, “Sorry for any incontinence.”
We didn’t post these errors on the newspaper website. Instead, one of our many social-media-oriented staffers did it on his own site and on his own time. That way, the newspaper couldn’t be accused of warring with administration. But the word – and the message – still traveled far and wide. We haven’t been lectured to since.
3. The Coiling Boa Constrictor of
Super-Mystical Circulation Cutoff
While administrators can’t legally stop you from reporting bad news, they’ve had better luck stopping you from spreading bad news.
“Sometimes the ugly face of censorship does not present itself until later in the publication process – at the time of distribution,” the SPLC says on its distribution page. “The First Amendment’s freedoms of speech and press protect distribution as well as composition. Nevertheless, freedom to distribute on college campuses is not absolute.”
But it can be absolutely surreal. The major tactic at many campuses is to claim your newspaper is ugly.
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but campus beautification is in the hands of the administration.
Here’s a snippet of a recorded conversation with FAU’s “director of space utilization and analysis,” who last year decided to restrict where the newspaper’s racks could be placed on campus – coincidentally, after a series of controversial stories…
editor: Why this change?
administrator: There’s no reason. We just want to keep it clean.
managing editor: When you say, “no reason,” what did you mean?
administrator: Aesthetics is the reason. This is a heavily used walkway, it’s a nice green open space.
editor: Why I’m questioning specifics is because I need to understand the rules, because according to this [ holds up printed copy of FAU policies ] we’re following the policy.
administrator: Right, but it says, “Publications can be placed in bins at approved locations only.” That’s not an approved location.
editor: Right, but there’s no definition of an “approved location.”
administrator: “Approved locations” are approved by us, and we’re not approving these locations.
editor: So, you approve based on unwritten rules that exist in the heads of Facilities?
administrator: Honestly, we don’t have to give a reason for why we don’t approve the location.
According to the SPLC, they do need to give a reason. SPLC attorney Adam Goldstein told our editor that campus beautification rules must have a “a legitimate government purpose” – and “We feel like it” and “We think it would look nicer” aren’t legitimate.
So what was Goldstein’s advice? Sue.
It worked last year for The Liberty, a spunky independent paper at Oregon State University. “Racks were removed under an unwritten, 3-year-old policy to promote pedestrian safety and beautification,” according to the SPLC, “until the university replaced the unwritten policy with a more permissive written one.”
But lawsuits take time and money. What if you’re short on both?
repel with: Glorious Hand of Direct Distribution
Whenever beautification gets ugly at FAU, we take matters into our own hands.
Over the years, we’ve simply handed out papers around campus. Our logic: If administrators think our racks are ugly, just wait till they see our sweaty, slovenly staff waving papers at surprised students.
After last year’s vague threats, the editors decided to make distribution sexy. They recast the circulation manager as the “director of hand-to-hand distribution.” They recruited some crazy newcomers (every newsroom has a few, you know what I’m talking about) to stroll the campus with a stack of papers yelling, “Read the paper administration doesn’t want you to!”
They even got the sales director to perk the “hand-to-hand team” with free and discounted drinks and dinners from our advertisers. The sales director had offered such goodies to the newsroom, but the editors refused – they didn’t want advertisers thinking they could buy favorable coverage for a steak and a beer.
But the editors had no such ethical quandary with the hand-to-hand team receiving free sustenance, and the advertisers are happy because they still make money. (It’s a fact of college life that students don’t drink alone and bring friends with them. Only advisers drink alone.)
These perks go to the hand-to-hand team members who give away the most papers. Every so often, the team leader recognizes the winners at our Friday staff meetings – and if any writer, designer, or photog scoffs, we reply: “Without these awesome folks, no one would see all your lofty journalism. So you should by them a beer, you media elitist!”
4. The Eagle Talon Budget-Slashing Back Flip of Immortal Retribution
Last summer, FAU’s Student Affairs VP was recorded telling the editor, “The paper really belongs to the Student Government, they could close it down.”
When the editor replied that, “FAU would have a massive lawsuit on its hands,” the VP replied, “They could pull the funding. They don’t have to fund you.”
Turns out the editor is more right than the VP.
“They can always de-fund any program for a purely financial reason,” SPLC executive director Frank LoMonte told me when I shared the VP’s comments. “So if all programs are taking a proportional cut, the newspaper has no special status to be immune from those cuts.”
But, LoMonte added, “There are a handful of cases where schools or Student Governments have cut the funding for publications for what was clearly retaliation for the choices of the editors, and those cuts never hold up in court.”
If they even get to court.
In March 2008, SG at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga., sliced the newspaper’s budget by 27 percent. In June, the paper sued, claiming the cuts were retaliation for some hard-hitting stories. By November, the lawsuit was settled out of court, and the paper’s budget was restored.
Of course, a much slicker tactic is the Death of A Thousand Cuts. At FAU, the newspaper budget was slowly strangled over many years – from a high of more than $123,000 a decade ago to less than $79,000 last year.
Meanwhile, the student-run TV and radio stations – which don’t conduct any hard-hitting journalism – had their budgets jacked up by $3,000 and $10,000, respectively, over just the past three years.
Would we win that lawsuit? Maybe. But with so many small little cuts over such a long time, maybe not. So our motto has become, “If they cut us, we cut back.”
repel with: Cunning Fox Cut Back of Pious Justice
Our budget-cutting plan can be summed up in five words: “Everything goes except investigative journalism.”
First, we axed our marketing manager position, which promoted the paper by, among other things, working with SG on “good news” events.
For years, we offered SG a free half-page every other week so its leaders could talk directly to students. That was the second casualty.
Eventually, we were forced to cut back on coverage. Student Affairs has complained, “There aren’t enough stories in the paper.” And they’re right.
The editors long ago decided to spend their scant resources on investigating everything from hazing fraternities to lax dorm security to embezzling student body presidents – stories that won awards and changed things on campus.
So when administrators publicly declared the paper was weak, the editors publicly countered, “Well, what do you expect? You’ve cut our budget by more than 35 percent.”
Next year, the newspaper’s budget is finally going up. Did the staff wear admin down? Who knows. Who cares.
5. The Lethal Lion Exploding Adviser Sudden Termination Technique
This is how the U.S Department of Health defines “job stress”…
The harmful physical and emotional responses that occur when the requirements of a job do not match the capabilities, resources, or needs of the worker.
…and that’s also the job description for college media advisers.
I don’t know of any other career that holds you responsible for decisions you can’t ethically make. For instance, in 2004, Ron Johnson was fired as adviser at the Kansas State University Collegian – for the second time. In 1997, he was fired “refusing to exert editorial control over the newspaper,” but he was reinstated 10 days later.
In 2004, his firing became permanent because the Collegian “failed to cover the Big 12 Conference on Black Student Government, which drew about 1,000 participants,” the Associated Press reported.
It was indeed a mistake, the editor admitted. Her mistake. Not Johnson’s. As a longtime and lauded adviser, Johnson lived up to his job title: He advised. He didn’t write, edit, shoot, or design.
But as he told the AP, “Most of the 15 years that I’ve been here there has been some kind of administrative pressure about content of the Collegian.”
So why fire the adviser instead of the editor? Three reasons…
- Firing a student is like clubbing a baby seal. Talk about bad press. Old men are less photogenic and sympathetic.
- If you get rid of an editor, that takes care of your problem for a few months. Get rid of the adviser, and no one’s left to tell future editors to fight for their rights.
- Since the editor does the journalism, she’s protected by the First Amendment. The Bill of Rights doesn’t guarantee “freedom to advise the press.” Johnson’s students sued on his behalf – and lost because the court decided, “Johnson’s First Amendment rights were not violated because he does not have any control over the content of the paper,” the SPLC reported.
College newspaper advisers have the job security and career longetivity of an Al-Qaeda suicide bomber – except the suicide bomber decides when to blow himself up. No such luck for the adviser. An administrator pushes the button.
repel with: Supernatural Adviser Invincibility Shield
This definitely won’t work everywhere, or possibly anywhere else but at FAU: Recruit a volunteer adviser.
After I was fired last summer – it’s a long story – the students asked me to stay on as a volunteer.
Because I was hired as a part-time adviser and always had to work elsewhere, I have the income to continue doing the job for free. Exactly one year later, I’m still there, since FAU has yet to hire my replacement. And I’ll stay for as long as the staff wants me to.
If your adviser gets fired, simply go out and find another. Or a dozen. Pro journalists love to help out college journalists. And they don’t even have to be local – I’ve Skyped and emailed with editors around the country.
It’s much harder these days for administrators to isolate editors, but if you don’t know where to start looking, contact me here and I’ll put you in touch with some folks I know.
Snatch the pebble…
And so, grasshopper, I pray I have opened your eyes to what you once thought impossible: The properly trained editor will always win.
If your administration or Student Government tries to shut you up or shut you down, the opposite of their intentions will visit them tenfold – more people will read your newspaper, and your staunch defense of the First Amendment will become resume fodder for years to come.
Don’t believe me? The previous editor of FAU’s student newspaper, Karla Bowsher, faced each of these deadly moves last year. Just this morning, on World Press Freedom Day, the Society of Professional Journalists announced the winners of its annual Mark of Excellence competition. Karla won first place in the nation for General Column Writing – partly for covering how administrators tried to control her.
The student surpasses the master.
There is nothing more submissive and weak than water. Yet for attacking that which is hard and strong, nothing can surpass it.
– Lao Tzu