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Taylor students take on press censorship

BY Carolyn Muyskens - cmuyskens@chronicle-tribune.com

A study of press freedom at Christian universities conducted by Taylor University students has garnered national coverage.

Religion News Service, the Washington Examiner, the Student Press Law Center and several other religion and college media news sites have run stories in the last two weeks about the study, which was released on May 1 by the newly formed Student Press Coalition. Taylor students created the SPC in order to publicize their study's results and make clear they weren't representing the university.

According to the survey's results, half of student editors at Christian universities said it would be fair to say their publication is censored.

The survey, which received responses from student editors at 49 universities, also found that 76 percent of students agreed with the statement: “I or my school's publication have faced pressure from university personnel to change, edit or remove an article after it's been published in print or online.”

Seventy-two percent of advisers and 71 percent of administrators have the power to say a story cannot be published, according to the study. Student editors report that 34 percent of advisers and 32 percent of administrators have used this power.

Student publications at private universities are not subject to First Amendment free speech rights they would be afforded at public universities, so the prior review and prior restraint powers described by the survey's respondents are legal and well within the rights of Christian university advisors and administrators.

But the students at the SPC hope they can advocate for more freedoms for student journalists through their research and their new organization. The SPC website published “The Freedoms We Want,” a statement which acknowledges that students give up certain freedoms when they choose to attend Christian schools and asks that Christian universities promise more press freedoms to their student journalists.

Annabelle Blair is director of media relations for the Student Press Coalition and a graduating senior at Taylor University. She said the impetus for the study was the frustration a group of Taylor students experienced with censorship on Christian campuses. When survey results started coming in and they realized they weren't alone in their frustration, the idea to go public struck them.

Blair said the response from media has been exciting.

“I'm excited because it shows that people care about the freedom of the press, and it shows that we're not alone,” she said.

Although Christian universities legally fall into the same First Amendment situation as secular private schools, Blair says that Christian universities' culture and faith background can sometimes give teeth to administrators' and advisers' desire to keep student media away from potentially negative stories.

“It's not Christ-like to print that story,” is one administration argument Blair has heard from other student editors.

Another finding was that 19.6 percent of students said their student media had policies saying their publication exists either partly or entirely to provide public relations for the university.

Taylor University's student media policy for example says: “The university cannot afford questionable or negative Echo reporting to reach a worldwide audience,” and states that the goal of the publication should be “to develop an online version of the Echo that offers positive public relations to the university.” An excerpt of the policy is provided on the SPC's website.

Jim Garringer, director of media relations for Taylor University, explained, “The original policy was written a number of years ago as a preliminary policy to allow the Echo to be able to publish online.” Garringer added, “We have not enforced it as such.”

Garringer said the school will be reviewing and updating the policy.

“It's not going to continue to say what it does,” he said.

Indiana Wesleyan University's student media outlets, the Sojourn and GrantCOnnected, do not have formal student media policies in place, but student Rachel Harding, who will be editor-in-chief of the Sojourn in the fall, confirmed that the university has the right to cut stories.

“The administration 100 percent has the authority to kill a story if they think a story portrays them in a negative light,” Harding said.

Randall King, professor of communication at IWU and director, WIWU-TV, said that during his tenure as adviser of the paper, he never killed a story and the administration never stepped in, either, although he emphasized that he or the administration would have had the right to do so according to the law.

King emphasized that the paper is a teaching lab for students, and the strong authority given to faculty advisers is what helps students learn.

“We believe that the adviser needs to be in the room, in the discussion, not necessarily to stop something but to make sure its journalistically sound,” King said, speaking as an educator and not on behalf of the university.

“When you stay in the journalistic process, you get better journalism and that’s what we want to happen, educationally. We don’t want to stop stories, we want them to be reported well,” King added.

Garringer also said Taylor's student media is learning-focused, which informs the general practice of not enforcing the “positive PR” policy for the online Echo.

“There's a general understanding that the students are better served if they have as close to a real life experience as possible,” Garringer said. “Last year, everything in the printed paper was allowed to go online.”

Blair agrees that student journalists should get a real life experience. It's one of her arguments for more press freedoms.

“Hey, you're training us as journalists,” she said. “We hope you would give us the responsibility to do real journalism.”

Blair is unsure what the future holds for the Student Press Coalition. She and most of the SPC members are graduating, so they are hoping to pass the torch to another student or group of students at a Christian university.

Faith and journalism go together well, according to Blair, and she hopes faith-based universities will agree.

“Truth-telling and ethics are significant to the Christian faith, and journalism is a craft that engages with both of these principles.”