Student journalism at Willamette and beyond
The First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” This protects the right of journalists to print information on behalf of the American people, speak out against oppressive governmental powers and check the powers that be.
Though freedom of the press extends to all American citizens, it hasn’t always been available to student publications. A student publication is most easily defined as any media outlet produced by students at an educational institution. These include newspapers, magazines, radio shows, literary journals and pretty much anything else you can think of. Typically, these publications cover local and school related news, but they often stretch to cover national issues.
Traditionally, student press has been subject to what is known as “prior restraint,” meaning educators, administrators and the like have access to the completed publication prior to its publication — and can remove or edit any content they disagree with. This is not to be confused with “prior review” meaning administrators can read the publication prior to publishing, but make no content edits.
As of 2018, there is no federal law that clarifies the rights of student press. Two landmark cases, Tinker v. De Moines, and Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, set precedent for the issue.
In the case of Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, a high school paper attempted to print a story covering the experiences of pregnant students. The principal of the school then reviewed the publication prior to printing, and removed the story entirely. The case argued that the student’s First Amendment rights had been infringed upon. After a lengthy Supreme Court case, the court held that the principal’s actions did not violate the students’ free speech rights. Since the paper was sponsored by the school, it had valid reason to prevent the publication of articles that it deemed inappropriate. This case made it clear that student publications do not have full protections of the First Amendment.
In the case of Tinker v.s. Des Moines, the first amendment rights of students were also brought into question. In December of 1965, a group of students wore black armbands to school protesting the Vietnam War. When the school administration heard of the protest plans, they created a policy that stated, “any student wearing an armband would be asked to remove it, with refusal to do so resulting in suspension.” The court eventually ruled that the “students did not lose their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech when they stepped onto school property.” Therefore, in order to justify the suppression of speech, the school officials would have to prove that the protest in question would “materially and substantially interfere” with the operation of the school.
These cases, while not directly commenting on the conduct of the student press, set precedent about the free speech of students, operating in and around campus life. There are two main takeaways from these cases: students don’t lose their First Amendment rights on campus, but if their conduct interferes with the operation of the school, their speech can be censored.
Currently, 10 states have given students more legal protection against censorship. These laws vary by state, but in general, they extend the freedom of the press to include collegiate and high school papers. That being said, all newspapers, be it professional, collegiate or high school, are prevented from printing anything violating libel or slander laws.
The term ‘libel’ is defined by Mirian Webster as written defamation, or “a published false statement that is damaging to a person’s reputation.” All newspapers and publications are legally obligated to refrain from printing anything libelous. The term ‘slander’ is defined by Miriam Webster as, “making a false spoken statement damaging to a person’s reputation.” Again, all newspapers and publications are legally obligated to refrain from printing anything slanderous.
There have been national and headache-inducing debates about censorship. Think, The Pentagon Papers. Think, Watergate. Governmental powers during both of those issues attempted to censor publication on the basis of libel and slander. The freedom of the press has been protected, again and again, in attempt to hold authority figures accountable. This right is just being extended to the student press, but all news sources are held to the “truthfulness” laws of libel and slander.
In 2007, the Oregon State Legislature extended the right of the student press to mirror that of the First Amendment. This law allow student press organizations to sue if their rights have been violated, and it recognizes student press institutions as legitimate news sources. With this shift in language, the standards of content have also been altered. With the extension of “legitimate new source” status comes the applicability of legitimately scary libel and slander laws.
The Willamette Collegian is nearly as old as the institution itself, but some argue it hasn’t aged as finely. That being said, from its very beginning, it has held itself to professional standards of journalistic ethics, in line with national free press laws.
In September of 1875, The Collegian printed its first issue. In it was a letter to its new readership, outlining the goals of the newly-minted opera-tion. “With the hearty co-operation of our friends and the friends of Willamette University, we shall endeavor to make our paper a useful dactor in our society; and with these introductory remarks we present our first greeting.” The article continued, urging students to engage within and around the paper. “As we place the first number of our paper before its readers we entertain the hope that it may be received with favor, and that its contents may be worthy of perusal… An opportunity is offered by our paper — a field for intellectual improvement, which for value, cannot be overestimated. We design, so far as our facilities may allow, to make these columns as avenue through which students may express their ideas; and at the same time endeavor to compress into its pages information incident to the student’s life.” Currently, The Collegian is lead by Edi-torin-Chief Madelyn Jones, who strives to continue the paper’s dedication to journalistic ethics. “Journalistic integrity extends to every part of the process of creating this paper. To me it means citing sources, or showing how you know what you know. It means conducting interviews with care. At the heart, it means reporting truth. It means trying to seperate bias from fact. Each step of the process should be intentional and thoughtful throught.” Sophie Smith, Managing Editor, echoed this thought, saying, “A big part of our job is to hold WU, its institutions and student body, account-able, and I think having integrity as a student journalist means putting aside biases, opinions and fear when doing that reporting.” This year, The Collegian is undergoing major editorial changes, which have since caused a rift between its readership and executive team. Smith spoke to this, saying, “In the past, The Collegian has been a sort of vehicle for self expression… This year, we’re trying to move away from that superfluous, personal writing and focus instead on objective, fact and interview-based reporting. It’s a tricky shift.” Facilitating this change is Len Reed, The Collegian’s journalistic advisor, who works closely with the executive team to raise the quality of content throughout the paper. “The changes for staff have been striking yet subtle, perhaps, for readers. A key change — one that is vital to the credibility of the paper — is the diminished use of first-person voicing in news and feature stories. With the ‘I’ bleached from most stories unless labeled as opinion or personal essay, the newspaper’s staff emphasizes reporting that shows the sourcing of information – this to raise the documentary bar for the reporter while earning the reader’s trust. It’s a change that fosters transparency,” said Reed. In attempt to raise the reputation of the publication, the paper is returning to more traditional journalistic standards. “This means a lot fewer opinionated articles, a lot more references to studies, interviews and other articles and a lot fewer creative, abstract pieces of artwork.” Smith said. “On the surface, it may sound like these changes would make for a dryer, less fun paper, but these changes are all necessary in order for us to be a more reputable publication. We still include fun, interesting and thought-provoking articles and artwork, but it is all now being raised to a higher journalistic standard.” As the journalistic quality of the paper in-creases, the way that design impacts the overall read of a newspaper is also moving in a new direction. This is reflected in the changing roles of layout editors, graphic artists and photographers. Amarit Ubhi is The Collegian’s production manager, meaning she not only lays out the cover and back pages, but leads the design teams. “As an artist, I try to have several metrics for what makes good art for the paper. The art has to bring a relevant, fresh side to the article, and it has to be very clear,” said Ubhi. Art, photography and design in newspapers, or other media deemed “journalistic” is held to the same standard as any written content. “Clarity is one of the most important aspects of journalism in my eyes, as someone is going to stop reading an article as soon as they cannot understand it.” said Ubhi. This clarity is extended in art, articles and physical layout of the page. “As a layout editor, I have very little, if no, input on what is going to be in my section,” opinions layout editor, Tatiana Amrein said .“My job, then is to make sure that there are no glaring implicit messages that can misconstrue articles. As I mentioned before, the placement of articles with varying opinions or sensitive topics can send implicit messages that negatively impact the articles.” Amrein provided an example of this challenge, saying, “It would not be a good idea to place an article in favor of guns in public places next to a mass shooting article, because depending on which article was placed in the more prominent spot (either on top or on the left), it could show that The Collegian is taking a stance on the issue that could harm others.” Ubhi put it bluntly, “We are shifting the purpose of the paper to work for the reader, as opposed to the writer. This means that our articles have to be clear, well-sourced and they must uphold journalistic integrity. We have received pushback because of this, but I know that the quality of our paper has improved. We want to have the community’s support throughout these changes. We are a platform for the community, but are also a journalistic paper. This is a balance that we are navigating, and having Willamette’s support would really help us through this process.” An editorial with the headline, “Press Ethics Endorsed,” printed in the Oct. 16, 1964 edition of The Collegian, echoes the current sentiment of its current staff and speaks to the current distrust of national, local and in-house media sources. “In investigating stories and evidence for editorials the past three weeks, we have become particularly concerned with an attitude towards the student press, and to some degree the national press, which we have encountered on our campus. This attitude has been one of the extreme mistrust of the institutions of the campus press. Some have doubted the truth will be printed or that the reporter is attempting to be objective. Some of the persons questioned felt that if their opinion disagreed with that of the editor it was of little use to express it because ‘you wouldn’t print it anyway.’ Others have remarked on supposed administrative control.” Sound familiar? Maybe not. Or perhaps it just illustrates a known truth in the field of journalism — the art of reporting is often misunderstood. The article then goes onto endorse a code of journalistic ethics that still hangs, in three different locations, in the current Collegian office. It has been revised, with time, of course. “To alleviate mistrust and to explain the function and goal of The Collegian, on this campus, we would like to print the Code of Ethics, which we, as members of the United States Student Press Association, subscribe to. This is the first time the student press has had a code of ethics. It is an idealistic code, but by setting its goals high we feel that the student press can gain the confidence of its readers and those whom it contacts for interviews as well as giving the papers a guideline for action.” The Collegian is still an active member of The United States Student Press Association, as well as two other nationally recognized student press associations. The editorial finishes with, “We endorse this code and its philosophy of responsible student journalism.” The current Collegian staff is dedicated to the institution of student press, and its relationship to larger campus life. “Student press is an important way for information to be dispersed through college campuses, to reflect student views about certain issues and to highlight important events and other pieces of information,” said current Opin-ions section Editor Sophie Goodwin-Rice. “It’s a central source for information that comes from students and serves students, and I think that’s an incredibly important dynamic to maintain.”