Beyond the Press: Collegiate Journalism's Uncertain Future

Julie Delton for The Chronicle Review

May 29, 2011

Student journalists are no strangers to controversy over the content of their newspapers. Whether formally supported by an institution or not, collegiate student newspapers have the capacity to enrage, offend, and disappoint, just as mainstream media do. These reactions are to be expected, and indeed were observed as early as 1940, when a professor writing in The Journal of Higher Education noted the mixed quality of the student newspaper: "On the one hand, it represents freedom of expression, opportunity for creative development, a medium for dispensing news to student groups of four hundred and four thousand and fourteen thousand, a training ground for future journalists, and a desirable extra-curricular activity. On the other hand, it represents a perennial nuisance, a hotbed of undergraduate radicalism and bad taste, a playground that attracts freaks and publicity hounds, an uncertain chronicle of the ability of college students to misspell, mis-construe, and misjudge."

College administrators today would probably not describe the roughly 2,000 collegiate student newspapers in the United States as playgrounds for "freaks" and "publicity hounds," but the "perennial nuisance" factor remains, and is likely to take on new life as students increasingly choose electronic media—Facebook, blogs, Twitter—as their preferred vehicles. The pervasive nature of these modes of communication, as well as the all too real possibility of a picayune concern's "going viral" and gaining unexpected attention, means that defining the contours of student newspapers and their terms of engagement with colleges merit renewed consideration from student journalists, faculty advisers, and administrators alike.

Outside the academic community, some lawmakers are already concerned about what students read, as student journalists at Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia recently learned in Educational Media Company v. Swecker, a lawsuit that they brought challenging the constitutionality of a Virginia law that prohibits certain types of alcohol advertisements in college-student publications. The state argued that the regulation—which does not clarify whether it covers online student publications or only print ones—permissibly furthers its reasonable goal of decreasing underage drinking. The student newspapers argued that it infringed student journalists' free-speech rights and prevented them from realizing $30,000 a year in advertising revenue from liquor companies. The trial court ruled in favor of the students, but a federal appellate court upheld the regulation's constitutionality as a restriction on commercial speech. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the newspapers' further appeal.

Swecker is the second recent outlier among court decisions dating back to the 1960s that were otherwise largely solicitous of collegiate student newspapers. Early decisions (which typically involved dismissed students or demoted faculty advisers) established that actual or attempted censorship of student newspapers by administrators at public institutions is rarely permissible, even when the institution pays all or part of the costs associated with operating the newspaper. This presumed deference to collegiate student speech ended in 2005, when a federal appellate court held, in Hosty v. Carter, that a legal framework previously used only for secondary schools and widely believed to be deferential to administrative censorship provided the starting point for legal review of administrative censorship in higher education as well.

At issue was a dean's demand at Governors State University, a public institution in Illinois, to receive an advance copy of each issue of the student newspaper before it went to print. The request came shortly after the university had terminated the newspaper's faculty adviser, who allegedly had tussled with the administration over its requests that he rein in the newspaper after it printed a series of articles that were critical of the administration. A federal appellate court ruled in favor of the university, citing a 1988 Supreme Court decision that effectively permits censorship of student newspapers in secondary schools. The decision generated considerable concern for the freedom of collegiate student journalists and how other courts might view Hosty's reasoning. In response, three states (including Illinois) passed "anti-Hosty" laws aimed at prohibiting censorship of collegiate student newspapers at public institutions.

Today both Swecker and Hosty are worth remembering in light of the growing trend toward independent student media. While student newspapers were once primarily organized as sponsored curricular or laboratory activities overseen by instructional faculty, administrations increasingly have vested editorial and content responsibility in students. And many of the newspapers have come to rely on advertising revenue as the primary financing mechanism. Faculty advisers to student newspapers still exist, but their numbers are dwindling as more newspapers aim to achieve and proclaim their independence editorially, financially, and legally.

Some larger institutions have deliberately distanced themselves from the student press as a liability-prevention strategy, sometimes by encouraging establishment of separate corporate entities for the newspaper, or through arm's-length agreements stating that the university assumes no legal responsibility for the newspaper's activities. While those measures are also conducive to unfettered student expression, for many institutions and student newspapers the lack of any recognized relationship would be impractical, if not unwanted.

Ever-expanding modes of online content delivery (through, for example, blogs, Facebook, and RSS feeds) and ease of electronic readability (on iPads, Kindles, and other e-readers) now make student media independence much simpler than it used to be. While student journalists are unlikely to have printing presses in their dorm rooms, many know the latest in computer programming and technology and apply those skills, free, to their journalistic endeavors. The relative simplicity of electronic content distribution and readability will very likely change the perceived need for student newspapers to seek or maintain official ties to the institutions they serve. Access to funds—through student-activity fees, student-government allocations, or administrative bequests—is the chief reason student newspapers seek official recognition by institutions. Free use of office space and equipment and mail services are other perks that officially recognized student newspapers often enjoy. But online-only publication is much cheaper and requires fewer of those perks. The cost of domain-name registration and renewal, Web hosting, and Web-site design can probably all be covered by fees generated from sales of online advertisements, unlike hard-copy operations, for which ad fees seldom cover total costs. In short—and as the Supreme Court recently recognized in a case involving a student group denied recognition by a public law school—private groups can easily "maintain a presence at universities without official school affiliation," and the advent of electronic media and social-networking sites facilitates their presence.

The changing nature of media may upend restraint mechanisms condoned in Swecker and Hosty. For example, Virginia's regulation does not define the format or manner of distribution of student newspapers. Would the state believe that its regulation prevents online collegiate student newspapers from running alcohol advertisements? What if the same journalistic activities that riled the dean in Hosty had been published only online, as part of a student-run Twitter account with more student and faculty followers than the actual number of printed editions of the newspaper? Assuming that the tweeting students received no money from their institution, would the administration have ignored their behavior? Can college administrators claim authority over any Web site run by one or more students that provides news content related to the institution? If so, how will colleges balance their historic oversight of student groups with the freedom of students to act as independent agents in an online world? How will students react to any attempted oversight?

While answers to these and other questions remain to be sorted out, one reality is certain: Electronic content distribution heralds a new era in the relationship between colleges and student newspapers, a time that is not likely to be any freer of controversy than was the print era. Better that student journalists and administrators reconsider the boundaries of their changing relationship now, before the courts do it for them.

Jacob H. Rooksby, a lawyer, is a doctoral student in higher education at the University of Virginia.