The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the freedom of the press.
In college campuses around the country, student newspapers and magazines operate under the idea that all press is free, including their own work. Recent events at the University of Georgia, however, highlight how press freedom is hardly safe from attack.
Earlier this month, Polina Marinova, editor in chief of the university’s student-run paper The Red & Black, resigned and walked out of the office in protest after the university tried to gain editorial control over the publication. The paper’s editorial board joined her and launched a blog called Red and Dead to demand a reversal of the university’s policies and publish their own articles outside of The Red & Black.
Among the encroachments on the paper’s independence, Marinova noted that someone on the Board of Directors called for The Red & Black to have a change in the amount of “good and bad” content. What exactly was bad content?
The board member described it as “[c]ontent that catches people or organizations doing bad things. I guess this is ‘journalism.’ If in question, have more GOOD than BAD.”
The board also pushed to have a professional adviser become the editorial director, which would give individual prior review on what the paper published. That means that a hired, paid member of the university would be able to tell the student staff what could and could not run inside the paper, giving the university veto power over what students worked on. And the university did this without any input from the students who staff the paper.
The Red & Black’s walkout was the right thing to do.
Journalism isn’t public relations. Journalists are not there to serve as propaganda machines and to simply regurgitate positive news about institutions.
What the University of Georgia tried to do is an affront to student journalism. The Red & Black, like many other college newspapers, is explicitly student-run. It’s an independent and legitimate news publication.
There might be some idea that because its journalists are students they don’t have the same rights or authority on matters as journalists who work on a full-time basis. But students work hard, turn out stories and see them published. They strive to seek truth and report it, as the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics dictates.
Student journalists are legitimate journalists, and to have prior review and other forms of censorship forced onto them is an affront to their freedom as press.
And as for the board member putting quotation marks around journalism to describe a body that exposes misconduct or corruption, that doesn’t deserve quotations as if it’s some dismissible idea. That’s what journalism is.
George Orwell once said, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”
Downplaying that kind of reporting does more harm than good in the long run, as many cases of misconduct could go unchecked.
This kind of censorship shouldn’t happen, but it does, so at the very least it’s good that student journalists fight back and take action to protect their independence.
And if anything, this incident shows that the institutions that try to rein in student press can’t keep up with the students. Marinova and the other editors organized quickly, built a strong online presence and reached out to other publications and journalism groups to share their story. The university was on the defensive and could not keep up.
There is a happy ending here: the staff of The Red & Black managed to reach an agreement with the University of Georgia to stop the changes, and Marinova and other editors are back in their old positions. The former Red and Dead staff are continuing to push for a lack of censorship, and they did show the university that they won’t simply stand back and lose control of their paper.
What the editorial board of The Red & Black, and all of the other staff members who joined them, did is inspiring.
Journalists, whether they’re students or otherwise, should never have to fight for freedom of the press. But since they do, it is good to know that they don’t stand back and let others trample over them.
Nicholas Slayton is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism.