Tennessee must protect students’ First Amendment rights

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Photo courtesy of The Atlantic

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Photo courtesy of The Washington Post

By Page Forrest

Managing Editor

In January, two students at Mount St. Mary’s University in Maryland published an article in their campus newspaper quoting the school president’s comparison of struggling freshmen to bunnies that needed to be culled. Since the university didn’t want to expel the student reporters, they fired the newspaper’s faculty advisor for “disloyal behavior,” according to the New York Times.

After a year of contentious discussions of what constitutes free speech on college campuses, to see such blatant attempts at punishing a campus newspaper for publishing the truth was disappointing to say the least. Mount St. Mary’s was trying to raise their retention rates by disinviting struggling students from the university before they dropped out. The university president, Simon Newman, did not even deny that he said to a professor, “This is hard for you because you think of the students as cuddly bunnies, but you can’t. You just have to drown the bunnies.” Rather, he apologized for his choice of wording and then immediately punished the only person he thought he could without causing a publicity nightmare. Of course, the story hit the news cycle regardless and the nation raised enough of a fuss that Newman was forced to resign on March 1.

Administration censorship of student-run newspapers is unacceptable in any form, whether it’s punishment after the fact, or trying to prevent stories from going to publication. Unfortunately, it’s becoming a trend. In September of 2015, The Atlantic published a piece remarking on the emerging pattern titled “The Plot Against Student Newspapers?” Loni McKown was fired from her position as the student newspaper advisor at Butler University in the fall of 2015 for allegedly pushing editorial agendas, despite sterling reviews from students. In 2005, students at Governors State University in Illinois lost a court case in which they claimed their First Amendment rights had been violated when the school administration stopped publication of the paper after the staff wrote pieces critical of the administration. The Seventh Circuit Court did not agree.

Only nine states have specific laws protecting students’ free expression: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, North Dakota, and Oregon. Tennessee needs to join that list, preferably following in the steps of California, which is the only state whose protection law extends to both public and private universities. The First Amendment protects us from government interference in our speech and publications–and when public universities are funded by the government and private universities accept government-based student loans, that amendment and the rights it entails extend to student bodies.

University funding of student newspapers is not acceptable justification for a university trying to censor articles or topics. Political student organizations can apply for school funding, and as long as they follow national campaign finance laws, they’re generally free to do as they please. An effective student newspaper isn’t necessarily pushing a political agenda, but covering relevant and interesting events related to the college in question, even if it doesn’t always paint the university in the best light. We should be allowed and even encouraged to cover more than football games and fundraisers. Yet across the country, students have seen pushback and punishment from college boards. There’s a difference between free speech and hate speech, and no one’s advocating for the latter. Students’ First Amendment rights must specifically be protected at Sewanee and all over Tennessee. It isn’t enough to rely on the Constitution–the 7th Circuit Court proved that. A law specifying our right to write under the First Amendment must be passed. We can’t wait until there’s an issue–reactionary responses aren’t effective solutions. We must be preemptive about our constitutional rights, and call for an end to university censorship of student newspapers across the nation.

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