Threats to a Free and Vibrant Press at the University of Memphis

As a faculty member in the journalism department at the University of Memphis, I would like to publicly encourage my university and its administration, students, alumni and friends to take steps to show concrete support for a free and vibrant student press.

As this story in today’s Commercial Appeal shows, the university recently slashed funding to the Daily Helmsman, our student paper, by one third. The university adamantly denies that this funding cut was based on content, citing instead the difficult budgetary environment. The paper’s adviser and editor-in-chief think differently.  Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., thinks this is possibly a “slam-dunk” First Amendment violation.  A more complete story was just posted on the Student Press Law Center site that details how, just one day after new editor-in-chief Chelsea Boozer wrote an open letter critical of the university police director, police filed two incident reports against her.

My area of expertise is not media law, and I’m not seeking to “prove” anything in this post. I’m not directly involved in Daily Helmsman operations, and I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the case. Expect more detailed reporting coming soon from the Daily Helmsman, including more precise information on how the budget cuts compare to those suffered by other student organizations.

Instead, I’d like to respond to Dean of Students Steve Petersen, who, according to a transcript, suggested in a meeting with faculty newspaper adviser Candy Justice and editor-in-chief Boozer that the seven-member committee who voted to slash funding felt that the paper, unlike other university entities, had no “mission.” He said:

What I’m telling you is that the committee feels like there is no foundation on which the Helmsman exists. That it moves around constantly based upon the whims of whoever is the editor.

He also said:

If there is a statement that says this is what this paper is about, this is what we do, then you can be judged on the paper and what it says its going to do, rather than on the whims of whoever is going to be the editor.

I can’t offer an “official” mission statement for this particular newspaper,  but I’m frankly appalled that anybody working in an institution of higher education is unaware of the mission of journalism in our society. When my former bosses Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel surveyed and interviewed hundreds of journalists around the nation for their book Elements of Journalism, they found widespread agreement that the core mission of journalism is to “give people the information they need to be free and govern themselves.” Student journalists are no different. Their job is to hold the powerful accountable, and to inform tuition-paying students and their tax-paying parents how their university is serving their needs and providing them with the highest quality educational experience possible. It’s quite simple, really. I can also tell you quite unequivocally what its mission is NOT, and that is to serve as a public relations arm for the university.

Petersen and other university administrators insist that their complaints about coverage are unrelated to the funding cut. Again, I can’t speak directly to that in this post; hopefully we will learn more.  However, in a transcript from the meeting, Petersen said the committee complained when  coverage of a campus event the Student Government Association hoped to promote was bumped by breaking news of a rape. He also said:

I can’t begin to tell you the examples that came up in that conversation about things that the paper did print that seem to have very little relevance or that seemed to touch very, very few students on campus.

He went on to cite a specific example of the above: A story about a Marxist student group on campus involving just four students.

Let’s leave aside that it’s more than a  little disturbing to hear student government officials or administrators even imply that they should have ANY kind of influence over what an independent student newspaper covers. These criticisms are, on their face, ridiculous to anybody with a basic sense of news values in which, yes, issues impacting student safety are going to trump a standard event story, and that sometimes an unusual or interesting student group might merit coverage even if a large number of people are not involved.  But let me also just share with you a few things the Daily Helmsman also wrote about last year, which helped to make the new editor-in-chief Chelsea Boozer one of the best collegiate journalists in the country – a THREE-TIME NATIONAL award-winner! –  and the paper  second place overall in the “best newspaper” competition in this year’s Region 12 Society of Professional Journalists awards.

They wrote award-winning stories explaining how student fees fund full tuition for Student Government Association and Student Activities Council officers.  They also wrote some excellent stories about campus crime and safety, doggedly pursuing news about an on-campus rape, which involved a month-long open records struggle with the university. Like any student newspaper, they are not perfect, but I’m proud of their hard work and good reporting.

My outrage here not really just about the money. Yes, like many other public universities, we are suffering from massive cuts in state support, so even regardless of what is actually going on in this particular case, there is no doubt that all sectors of the university are struggling to fulfill our educational mission.  That crisis is bigger than just us and is affecting everyone. While I believe that campus newspapers are one of few remaining cases in which printing on dead trees still makes some sense, we can publish on the web if publication days must be cut, and if I was an editor, I’d be actively working to develop a mobile presence; the University of Oregon’s student paper has impressed me greatly with its smart, forward-thinking digital strategy.

My concern lies with my commitment as an educator to my students and my belief that it is our paramount duty to encourage independent thinking and an understanding of the core civic responsibilities that underlie our democracy. I think it is incumbent upon us to actively work to support students’ freedom of speech, and to encourage them to recognize that what separates the United States from countries like China, Russia and Syria is our commitment to a free and unfettered press. Indeed, there are few things I am more passionate about, which is why I’m willing to write this post even though I do not have tenure.

Please help us spread the word. You can send comments or support to Editor in Chief Chelsea Boozer at cboozer@dailyhelmsman.com UPDATE: You can also contact President Shirley Raines at sraines@memphis.edu or write a letter to the Commercial Appeal: http://www.commercialappeal.com/letter-to-editor/

4 Comments

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4 responses to “Threats to a Free and Vibrant Press at the University of Memphis

  1. I’m really, truly, honestly embarrassed by my university for this. I don’t have $1 million to give to the U of M, so my opinion as far as Mr. Petersen is concerned really doesn’t matter (sorry Petersen, but you know that’s true) — but I can tell you this: if/when I ever get $1 million to give to a university or some other entity in the future, this is one of those instances and events that’s going to make me send that money elsewhere than the University of Memphis.

    A university that doesn’t have an interest in transparency, free speech, and freedom of the press is not a university I’d like to associate myself with, or seek to invite others to learn more about.

    I was proud of our winless football team, because I know (from my own experience as a student-athlete) that those student athletes were trying very hard, and them and their coaching staff were bent on improving on the field and in the classroom. The winless thing didn’t bother me; wins will come.

    But this? THIS is an embarrassment to the University, to the city, and to the current and former students. I’m not gonna write a letter, and I’m not gonna stage a boycott. Maybe that’s what the university wants — people without the time to make a big stink.

    But this will turn around to bite them, whether its donors, or supporters, or future students — and this is a black mark on the university, the SGA, and Dean Petersen (among others).

  2. Enough said. Time to get to work.

  3. AFB

    Great post, amazed by your skills and passion.

  4. Denise Lofton

    I stumbled upon your posts looking for information on book publishing with UofM. After reading your post, my response to the initial inquiry is ‘never mind’. I recall my own Memphis State days with the Daily Helsman, and believe that time sparked my own interest in writing. I am sad to hear that the current administration has blinders own and seeks to move backwards.

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