At HBCUs, student journos get little leeway

Administrators at historically black colleges and universities have long cracked down on student press freedoms, something the National Association of Black Journalists hopes to shift

This is homecoming week at Grambling State University: Students are celebrating with a gospel music concert, a halloween party, career fair and, of course, the big game on Saturday against Mississippi Valley State. But instead of enjoying his final homecoming week as a student at Grambling, David Lankster is debating whether to launch his own news website so that he can report on the school, which has been making national headlines for its deteriorating conditions.

Just over a week ago Lankster and his colleague, opinion editor Kimberly Monroe, were suspended from the school newspaper, The Gramblinite, amid student protests over crumbling infrastructure and growing frustrations with campus administrators. The newspaper’s adviser accused the editors of acting unprofessionally and tainting the paper’s reputation.

The suspensions were almost immediately overturned, but not before the actions received critical national attention from professional journalists and free-press advocates. The two student editors spoke about the ordeal over the weekend at the Associated Collegiate Press and College Media Association national convention in New Orleans, where they described an atmosphere of “censorship, intimidation, and confusion,” according to one report.

The actions at Grambling are part of a pattern of adversarial relations between administrators and student press at historically black colleges and universities. It is so common, in fact, that the National Association of Black Journalists announced last week it will convene a student media council to examine the relationship between student journalists and administrators at those institutions and explore how to increase independence and improve the state of student media.

“These incidents involving The Gramblinite should have been used as opportunities for teachable moments, said Errin Haines Whack, NABJ vice president of print. “But instead [they] have unfolded as another series of unfortunate events between an HBCU administration and its newspaper. It seems like this happens every couple of years, and it’s often around high-profile events like homecoming or graduation, when there is outside attention on the campus.”

Historically black colleges and universities are famous for being intimate and familial—faculty and administrators keep a close watch over their charges. It’s the reason many students prefer these schools over state universities. While these patriarchal relationships (some schools still enforce curfews) can be mutually beneficial, they may also lead to administrators and faculty becoming overly protective, controlling, and can create contentious relationships between administrators and students—particularly student journalists.

Most historically black colleges and universities were established after the Civil War with the express mission of educating black men and women when no other schools would. Today there are both public and private, two-year and four-year institutions, medical schools, and community colleges that are open to all races but remain predominantly black. Many students now choose to attend these schools because their parents or great-grandparents did, to have a stronger connection with African American culture and/or to benefit from smaller class sizes and close-knit relationships with faculty and staff.

But the adversarial pattern exposed at Grambling in recent weeks is also a part of life at many HBCUs.

“Students often complain about a lack of independence when it comes to stories that administrators have an issue with,” Haines Whack said. “They say there is no journalistic autonomy, especially if they run afoul of alumni and potential donors.” She added, “They don’t feel like they are in a position to challenge administrators, and when they do challenge, there is an imbalance of power. That’s problematic.”

According to Adam Goldstein of the Arlington, VA-based Student Press Law Center, administrators at many HBCUs police their image because “they are underfunded and feel like they don’t have the reputations they deserve—and they’re right, which makes them paranoid about their reputation and very interested in protecting it,” he said. “But we see the same problem with second- and third-tier state universities. The thing with HBCUs that I’ve noticed is that there’s an added veneer of ‘why are you doing this to us.’” Outsiders saw some of this a week ago when the chaos at Grambling went public.

Administrators, for the most part, aren’t trying to be nasty in their dealings with student journalists on HBCU campuses. They just believe they have more control than many actually do. And they are ignorant about free speech issues, said Talia Buford, whose experience as editor in chief at Hampton University’s newspaper, The Script, made national news back in 2003. Only with Buford, who is now an NABJ member, it wasn’t about what student journalists published, but where they published it.

Hampton’s then-interim president submitted a letter to the student newspaper after the school failed a health inspection, a letter the president wanted published in the lead story spot. Buford and staff used their editorial judgment and decided to publish the letter inside the newspaper. “I took it as a suggestion rather than a directive,” recalled Buford, who is now a reporter for Politico. Administrators confiscated and burned all but 500 copies of the 3,000-plus press run, an edition students had worked especially hard in advance of Hampton’s homecoming.

“It was a lot of stress. I thought I was going to get kicked out of school,” Buford recalls of the ordeal. But administrators weren’t trying to be malicious, she said. “In the end, this all came down to someone feeling disrespected.”

Unlike Grambling, which is a public state school, Hampton University is a private institution. Students there do not have the same kinds of press protections that student journalists at public institutions enjoy, because the courts have held that the First Amendment prevents only the government and those acting on its behalf from denying a person their free speech rights. Private institutions, therefore, are not generally subject to the limitations imposed by the First Amendment, according to the Student Press Law Center.

“Hampton could have done almost anything they wanted,” Buford said. Buford and editors ultimately reached an agreement that provided for another printing of the edition, which included the president’s letter on the front page with a disclaimer from the newspaper staff that ran underneath it.

HBCU administrators often also control the purse strings that allow student newspapers to exist. The student papers at both Hampton and Grambling, for example, receive operating revenue through student fees, which may explain why some administrators believe they deserve full control over content, regardless of what the Constitution says.

Buford said that administrators at HBCUs need to be more actively involved in ensuring press freedoms. “They need to realize that by taking these types of actions they are damaging the credibility of their own journalism programs. They are saying that they don’t trust the education and training they are providing,” she said. “If they are going to have journalism programs, then they’ll have to understand and respect what journalism is. A lot of them don’t.”

Meanwhile, NABJ’s plans for a student media council are still in the beginning stages, Haines Whack said, but the association hopes to bring together administrators, journalism advisers, and press advocates from the student press law center as well as student and professional journalists to begin conversations about how to help end negative practices that prevent journalists at HBCUs from learning best practices and doing their jobs.

Tracie Powell is a member of the National Association of Black Journalists.

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Tracie Powell writes about the media and media policy, specifically on issues regarding piracy, media ownership, government transparency and the business of journalism. A graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, she lives in Washington, DC. She has contributed to Poynter, NPR, and Publica, the first nonprofit investigative journalism center in Brazil. Tags: ,