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Adviser’s role in a free student press

September 9, 2006

What is the role of the faculty adviser in a free student press. This has been on my mind a great deal lately first because Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger just signed AB 2581, a measure that guarantees that the student press is free from administrative censorship and because a couple of colleagues at California community colleges have been under a lot pressure from their administrations to take a bigger role in “editing” student newspapers.

Through the years I’ve had my moments of pressure when people on campus have been unhappy that I don’t play a bigger role in filtering content in the student newspaper. While I cannot say I’ve been pressured to censor content, clearly my hands-off I-don’t-edit-student-stories does cause concern for some of my higher ups. I long ago developed a philosophy that I don’t read stories in the student newspaper until after the paper comes out … unless asked to by an editor. I am an agent of the school and feel that if I read over stories before print, then I am in a position to be a censor, even if all I am doing is pointing out a spelling error. My philosophy is designed to make the students responsible for their content and their mistakes.

Police dog stopping traffic is a form of censorshipIt is a controversial policy, but one I accept after careful consideration and conviction. Even industry professionals who don’t fully understand journalism education, even though they may have gone through it, don’t always agree. They are for freedom of the student press, but see no problem with the faculty adviser performing an editorial function. Here is the argument I propose: If I insist on reading content before publication, I am implying that no content should be printed unless I read and approve it. What happens if I don’t approve; if the reporter WANTS to spell something wrong or interprets a fact differently than I. Am I going to say, “No!” If I do, as a government employee, I am doing exactly what the First Amendment is designed to prevent.

While hands-off is the general philosophy of the journalism association I am most closely associated with, the Journalism Association of Community Colleges, even there it is controversial. A snapshot survey completed a few years ago backs up the philosophy: advisers proclaim that they practice hands-off. But there are plenty of advisers in the state who will proclaim that policy publically –or at least keep their mouths shut in conversations and imply they agree– and then routinely copyedit the newspaper pages before they are sent to the printer. They are the students’ final safety net. I think that does more harm than good for the students in the long run, but it sure makes life easier in the short run. Still, at the same time, I have respect for some of these instructors, even if I firmly believe they are wrong on this one issue, albeit a pretty important issue.

Let me reiterate that advisers who do not read stories before publication are not just being lazy. It is harder to do what we do than it would be to give that last copyedit of pages. We DO care about quality, but feel it is the students’ responsibility, not ours. I DO read stories and give advice, including with spelling and grammar, if the editor asks. And I cultivate a relationship with my editors so that they will feel comfortable approaching me. Newer students, especially older newer students twice the age of the editor, would PREFER that I read and copyedit their stories before print, but I refuse unless the request comes through the editor they don’t trust. I prefer to develop those teamwork skills and do my teaching after publication. My predecessor at Cerritos had a different philosophy: he would fight loudly for a free student press, but routinely re-wrote most or all of the students’ stories before publication. Students called him “chief.”

Mine is a firmly held philosophy, and many of my students come to appreciate it. I’ve paid a price more than once for holding it. I lost my last job partially because I held to this philosophy. It wasn’t the official reason given for eliminating the journalism program, but clearly made the decision to eliminate it for budget reasons easier for administrators to swallow. When I was deciding whether to leave my last job for good or stay and try to rebuild, I was encouraged to leave because the school was “not going to go down the journalism road again.” Two years later –about as quickly as these things take place– they hired a new journalism teacher. Whether or not the school got an adviser who will read and edit stories ahead of time with their next hire or not I do not know; she and I have never talked about it.”

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