New Mexico Faculty Members Seek Free-Speech Guarantee

To the Editor:

The dust appears to be settling and expressions of anger have subsided, but many faculty members at Central New Mexico Community College are still troubled by the administration’s decision on March 26 to suspend operations of the student newspaper (“New Mexico College Suspends Student Newspaper Over Sex Issue,“ The Chronicle, March 27). We are relieved that the president, Katharine Winograd, reinstated the paper less than 21 hours later, but we must point out that the college has not acknowledged that its initial decision was an arrogant assault on free-speech rights, which are a pillar of the Constitution and the American model of higher education.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, in a letter sent to President Winograd on March 27, claimed that “any reasonable public college president should well know” that free-speech rights are binding on publicly funded institutions of higher education.

The CNM Chronicle is not an official, funded publication of the college, subject to its editorial control, but an “independent newspaper published by the students,” according to the college’s own Web site. Staff are compensated with federal work-study funds, which are administered by the college. Other revenues are derived from a share of the activity fees paid by students and through the sale of advertising.

The college initially justified the shutdown over concerns about material it considered “offensive” that appeared in an issue of The CNM Chronicle devoted to sexual matters. However, the U.S. Supreme Court “has unequivocally held that student speech in student publications may not be punished merely because some or even many may find it to be offensive or disrespectful,” according to the letter from Fire’s senior vice president, Robert Shibley. “CNM’s censorship of the Chronicle is a brazen violation of the newspaper’s First Amendment rights.”

In addition, copies of the newspaper were confiscated from students on March 26, with some students claiming that the issue was grabbed from their hands. The Student Services Center was closed for a period of time and then reopened, presumably to remove copies from newsstands.

The suspension almost immediately produced a firestorm of rebuke and generated national news coverage.

In her e-mail of March 27 announcing the reinstatement of the newspaper, President Winograd rationalized the suspension by citing legal concerns over a minor who was interviewed for a story. In it, the minor, a high-school student who is concurrently enrolled at the college, explained her commitment to celibacy until marriage. Had those concerns been posed to The CNM Chronicle, CNM administrators would have discovered that paper’s staffers had obtained permission from the young woman’s parents beforehand.

Some of us believe that the only reason the paper was reinstated was to avoid further embarrassment for the college. President Winograd’s unwillingness to acknowledge that the college did anything wrong in the first place has only reinforced that conviction. Nor has anyone in the administration or on the Governing Board said anything to reaffirm the centrality of First Amendments rights to the mission and operations of the college.

What kind of message has been sent to the college’s students, faculty, and staff? Had there been no public uproar, would the newspaper still be mothballed? If the administration does not believe it erred, will it try again? Will it seek quieter, less visible ways in which to prevent The CNM Chronicle from covering stories on, say, strained relations with faculty, which the administration would like to shield from public scrutiny? And what kind of accountability, what level of responsibility, is the college demonstrating to the community? Does the administration assume that employees and students will eventually forget about this seamy episode?

To demonstrate the college’s integrity as a leading institution of higher education in the state, we urge the Governing Board to issue a clear statement affirming the primacy of freedom of speech at the college, including The CNM Chronicle.

Seamus O’Sullivan
Dianne Layden
Bob Anderson
Ralph Asbury
Benay Blend
Leigh Anne Chavez
Steve Cormier
Jeanne Elmhorst
Ralph M. Flores
Cheryl Foote
Cef Garcia
Shep Jenks
Lou Nicholas
Linda Oldham
Hana Norton
Geri Rhodes
Andy Russell
Matthew Showers
Sue Small
Alea Trafton
Dennis Vargo
Thomas E. Wofford

The signers are current and former faculty members of Central New Mexico Community College, which is located in Albuquerque.

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