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Author Topic: Dilemma re: freedom of the press in school publication  (Read 20539 times)
zuzu_
Frakking
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« on: March 09, 2012, 10:16:53 PM »

I am the reluctant adviser for my school's online publication. A student staffer, who has a good command of English and reliably meets deadlines and usually submits vanilla sports stories has just submitted an editorial on the presidential race. He analyzes all candidates and presents a stock evangelical Christian analysis. Whatever--it's an editorial. I have no problem publishing a conservative editorial.

This one has a few shockers. He questions Obama's birth certificate, and also says that in his opinion, no one with qualifier in front of "American" (eg "African" or "Asian") should be president. He also says that McCain would have won if he selected a man as VP. He also says that Romney should not be president because he is not a Christian, period.

Should I...
-Say nothing and publish the story "As is"  and let others respond if they want to?
-Point out that this comes off as terribly racist and sexist and give him an opportunity to change it if he wants to, but ultimately publish whatever he wants to publish?
-Publish it, with an editors note including links to Snopes articles
-Refuse to publish it as is?
-Something else? Are any one of these statements more unacceptable than the others?

This kid has severe, severe social awkwardness issues. He is virtually incapable of making eye contact, has verbal tics, etc. He works on these pieces all night--I know because he emails me at 3/4AM, but he is also in the library all the time. I don't know how he sleeps. He seems to come from a very strict, harsh home environment. He appears to have zero friends.

I have never edited anything for content before; I have a very hands off approach because frankly I am largely unqualified for this position and never wanted it to begin with. I don't want it to become a time suck.


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tee_bee
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« Reply #1 on: March 09, 2012, 10:35:45 PM »

You're the advisor? Then offer advice--let this writer know that he's going to come off as a racist, and, given that Obama's native-born US of American status is well documented, he will also come off as a crank. If he pushes back, let it go. It's a student publication, and the student's a student. I applaud your instinct to protect him from himself, but if you don't want this to be a time suck, you may not want to get all in loco parentis here.
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hegemony
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« Reply #2 on: March 09, 2012, 10:43:13 PM »

At this point, very seriously, I would quit the job.  I mean that's what I would do; I can't say what you should do.  But what a minefield this editorial is.  I personally would run, run, run, run away.
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tee_bee
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« Reply #3 on: March 09, 2012, 10:46:21 PM »

At this point, very seriously, I would quit the job.  I mean that's what I would do; I can't say what you should do.  But what a minefield this editorial is.  I personally would run, run, run, run away.

This is far and away the better answer. OP, I suspect you were press-ganged into this job. Yikes.
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geonerd
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« Reply #4 on: March 09, 2012, 10:47:14 PM »

You're the advisor? Then offer advice--let this writer know that he's going to come off as a racist, and, given that Obama's native-born US of American status is well documented, he will also come off as a crank. If he pushes back, let it go. It's a student publication, and the student's a student. I applaud your instinct to protect him from himself, but if you don't want this to be a time suck, you may not want to get all in loco parentis here.

+1, and tell the student that the Snopes links will be provided if the piece is published.
Good luck.

On preview, yes, Hegemony has the best idea.
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mountainguy
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« Reply #5 on: March 09, 2012, 11:40:31 PM »

Ick. Serious ick.

This is one of the main reasons why student media should operate as entities independent of the university whenever possible. If you invoke prior restraint (ie, making the student alter the piece or not publish it entirely) and the student freaks out, you may be opening yourself up to a huge legal mess. My knowledge of this area is about 10 years out of date, but as of 2002-03, Federal courts have ruled that student first amendment rights trump university concerns about image (see Kincaid v. Gibson 2001 for relevant case law).

Accordingly, my advice would be to let the student's editorial run, but to encourage another student to write a strong counterpoint piece that gets published in the same issue. Yes, it's unfortunate that a nutty opinion will get oxygen. But a counterpoint mitigates the chance that you'll be accused of ideological bias by some nutty right wing organization with a cadre of lawyers.
« Last Edit: March 09, 2012, 11:43:22 PM by mountainguy » Logged
quietly
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« Reply #6 on: March 10, 2012, 1:42:44 PM »

Ick. Serious ick.

This is one of the main reasons why student media should operate as entities independent of the university whenever possible. If you invoke prior restraint (ie, making the student alter the piece or not publish it entirely) and the student freaks out, you may be opening yourself up to a huge legal mess. My knowledge of this area is about 10 years out of date, but as of 2002-03, Federal courts have ruled that student first amendment rights trump university concerns about image (see Kincaid v. Gibson 2001 for relevant case law).

Accordingly, my advice would be to let the student's editorial run, but to encourage another student to write a strong counterpoint piece that gets published in the same issue. Yes, it's unfortunate that a nutty opinion will get oxygen. But a counterpoint mitigates the chance that you'll be accused of ideological bias by some nutty right wing organization with a cadre of lawyers.

I think this is a good suggestion. 

But it does depend on whether you're at a private or public school, and where your paper's funding comes from.  I attended a private undergrad and we were once censored by the administration, who claimed that because were were private and they paid for us, they could do so.  We didn't challenge it, but I suspect that would hold up in court (MG's case above is a public school and this is cited in the decision).

I also think the answer would be different if we had been financially independent and/or funded by student fees and advertising exclusively.

Still, MG's solution protects you on a lot of fronts. You may also want to give someone in the admin a heads up about what's coming, so that their PR office can be prepared for questions.  They may also want to have the lawyer write a disclaimer for you to publish.

Q.
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larryc
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« Reply #7 on: March 10, 2012, 2:05:09 PM »

It would be a great kindness to the kid to kill this. Tell him look, you are new at this. You have no idea how offensive this is to women and people of color. And if we print this with your name it will live on the internet forever. Many students here will be terribly hurt and angry and will denounce you. And when you try to get a job and the employer googles you this is the first thing they will find. Same for potential dates--and you won't get either.

My job here is to watch out for you and for the campus community. We are not going to publish this.
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prof_cj
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« Reply #8 on: March 10, 2012, 2:19:45 PM »

Two options;

A) Tell said student, and be fully prepared for them to flip their sh*t over perceived faculty censorship because let's be honest, if that's the sort of shenanigans they're considering valid as op/ed column material, they're that type of irrational weirdo.

Or

B) Quit because it's a headache you do not want to get involved in.
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forest_and_the_trees
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« Reply #9 on: March 10, 2012, 2:29:41 PM »

It would be a great kindness to the kid to kill this. Tell him look, you are new at this. You have no idea how offensive this is to women and people of color. And if we print this with your name it will live on the internet forever. Many students here will be terribly hurt and angry and will denounce you. And when you try to get a job and the employer googles you this is the first thing they will find. Same for potential dates--and you won't get either.

My job here is to watch out for you and for the campus community. We are not going to publish this.

This.  I've seen this pay out and it gets really ugly for the idiot kid.  Not much fun for anyone else either.  Campus wide protests, etc.
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larryc
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« Reply #10 on: March 10, 2012, 2:46:18 PM »

This kid has severe, severe social awkwardness issues. He is virtually incapable of making eye contact, has verbal tics, etc. He works on these pieces all night--I know because he emails me at 3/4AM, but he is also in the library all the time. I don't know how he sleeps. He seems to come from a very strict, harsh home environment. He appears to have zero friends.

Despite the abhorrent opinions my heart kind of goes out to this kid. Who knows what kind of hell his life has been so far, and for a kid like this a community college can really be the turning point--redemption, even. In four or five years he could be a different and better person, with a bit of mentoring. Time for that mentoring.
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fishbrains
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« Reply #11 on: March 10, 2012, 3:38:24 PM »

It would be a great kindness to the kid to kill this. Tell him look, you are new at this. You have no idea how offensive this is to women and people of color. And if we print this with your name it will live on the internet forever. Many students here will be terribly hurt and angry and will denounce you. And when you try to get a job and the employer googles you this is the first thing they will find. Same for potential dates--and you won't get either.

My job here is to watch out for you and for the campus community. We are not going to publish this.

+1.

And I would notify my higher ups that they might have a visitor should the kid throw a $hit-fit. I'm 99.99% sure my admins would support a kill job on something like this; hopefully yours are supportive as well.

But really, I would worry about your own career should something like this get published with your name as advisor on the document. Printing such a dopey piece could blow up in your face, and the powers-that-be may not see some dopey kid as the problem. In short, I'd rather deal with a pi$$ed-off student than a pi$$ed-off boss.   
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mountainguy
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« Reply #12 on: March 10, 2012, 4:08:30 PM »

I agree with others that an argument can be made for killing the piece. That having been said, the potential for a legal mess exists if the situation isn't handled exactly by the book. There are some pretty nutty right-wing organizations that can swoop in on free speech grounds. At minimum, I think Zuzu needs to consult higher-ups about (1) how to handle this particular incident, and (2) establishing a written policy for how the publication will handle controversial content in the future.

The legal standard for censorship of student publication at the college level is complicated. It depends in part on whether the publication is operated as a public forum for student expression. If the phrase "forum for expression" or similar language appears anywhere in the publication's editorial guidelines or policy documents (constitution, bylaws, etc.), prior restraint would probably be on very thin ice.* It's less likely that a court would intervene if the publication is clearly a co-curricular laboratory operated under the auspices of a for-credit class. If the status of the publication is somewhere in between (say, a noncredit student club with a faculty sponsor), the legal standard becomes really complicated.*

Just my $.02.


*Disclaimer: I'm not attorney. The above is informed speculation based on past experience.
« Last Edit: March 10, 2012, 4:11:31 PM by mountainguy » Logged
quietly
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« Reply #13 on: March 10, 2012, 4:09:45 PM »

It would be a great kindness to the kid to kill this. Tell him look, you are new at this. You have no idea how offensive this is to women and people of color. And if we print this with your name it will live on the internet forever. Many students here will be terribly hurt and angry and will denounce you. And when you try to get a job and the employer googles you this is the first thing they will find. Same for potential dates--and you won't get either.

My job here is to watch out for you and for the campus community. We are not going to publish this.

+1.

And I would notify my higher ups that they might have a visitor should the kid throw a $hit-fit. I'm 99.99% sure my admins would support a kill job on something like this; hopefully yours are supportive as well.

But really, I would worry about your own career should something like this get published with your name as advisor on the document. Printing such a dopey piece could blow up in your face, and the powers-that-be may not see some dopey kid as the problem. In short, I'd rather deal with a pi$$ed-off student than a pi$$ed-off boss.  

yeah, but I'd be concerned (if I were the OP) that the $#!tstorm could also ensue if s/he tries to kill it, or even counsel the kid out of it.  Then the OP is "censoring."  

I guess it depends on whether you think the kid is the litigious type, and has the resources to make and back up threats.  And whether you think you're capable of convincing the student you're helping him out.  

Another possibility is to tell admin and let THEM kill it, in which case it's off your shoulders.  This really is above your pay grade anyway.

Q.

ADDED ON EDIT: MG was posting at the same time as me.  Yeah, +1 to that.
« Last Edit: March 10, 2012, 4:10:32 PM by quietly » Logged
professor_pat
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« Reply #14 on: March 10, 2012, 4:40:09 PM »

Yeah, I'd go straight to my dean and probably also to university counsel before agreeing to publish this.
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