‘This is unprecedented’: Public colleges limiting journalist access

A gate at Bronx Community College (Edward Blake/Flickr)

On an assignment in August, freelance journalist Jeff Bachner had no trouble driving onto Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn. He parked his car and started taking photos.

Soon after, a college security officer said he was trespassing and put him in handcuffs. The officer, Corporal Maurizio Gambino, took Bachner to a campus security office, Bachner said in a statement to the New York Press Photographers Association, or NYPPA.

ICYMI: “She identified herself as a reporter. He then walked behind her and punched her in the side of the head”

The officer then re-cuffed him to a railing over his head, and ignored his pleas to loosen the handcuffs, Bachner said in the statement, the contents of which were confirmed by NYPPA Vice President Todd Maisel. When Bachner began to gasp for breath and complain of numb fingers, officers called a medic. They eventually released Bachner without charge.

Four days after the detention of Bachner, on August 16, campus security at Bronx Community College handcuffed freelance journalist J.B. Nicholas and issued him a summons for trespassing as he interviewed students about Confederate statues on campus. The charges were later dismissed.

In October, I was escorted off the same campus, Bronx Community College, by campus police on consecutive days after trying to speak to students for a follow-up story about the statues.

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Both Kingsborough Community College and Bronx Community College belong to the City University of New York, whose 273,000 students make it the largest urban university system in the US. A CUNY statement said the university system allows each campus to create its own media access protocol—but protocols for Kingsborough Community College and Bronx Community College are not publicly available. Neither college responded to repeated requests for its protocol.

The CUNY incidents are the latest, most severe examples of public universities denying journalists access to a campus or its students, a practice that got attention in 2015 when a professor at the University of Missouri told a photojournalist to stop taking pictures of a protest.

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The crackdowns violate the First Amendment, civil rights lawyers and press advocates say. College officials say they need to protect students from security threats and unnecessary disturbances. The dispute sits at the convergence of two hot button political issues: the anti-media rhetoric of President Donald Trump and efforts to restrict speech on college campuses.

“This is unprecedented, as far as I’m concerned,” said Norman Siegel, a civil rights attorney. “Journalists want to hear what young people have to say. These days, in the era of Trump, there’s so much disrespect for the First Amendment.”

At the University of Colorado Boulder, in May, a hired security firm posted a sign outside a student sit-in at the chancellor’s office with photos of four journalists from the local Daily Camera and a directive: “Not Allowed in Building.” Elizabeth Hernandez, one of the journalists pictured, said the sign “was like a wanted poster.”

 

On August 16, campus security at Bronx Community College stopped and arrested freelance journalist J.B. Nicholas for alleged trespassing. The charges were later dismissed. (Photo courtesy J.B. Nicholas)

 

At Keene State College in New Hampshire, reporters from both the campus newspaper and the local daily said they had difficulty getting direct responses from administrators and coaches in the Athletics Department. Steve Gilbert, an editor at the daily Keene Sentinel, said coaches told him off the record that “they would lose their jobs if they talked candidly,” he said.

Shelby Iava, then sports editor at the student newspaper, said she sought an interview in January with her roommate, Gabrielle Brzozowski, a member of the swim team. Brzozowski declined, saying the coaches had instructed the team not to talk to press under orders of Kelly Ricaurte, the school’s media relations director. Iava said, “Even my own roommate wouldn’t talk to me off the record.”

Ricaurte denied telling the coaches to bar student athletes from speaking to reporters. She said there “was no policy or process in place that would prohibit students from speaking with media.” She called any perception to the contrary a “misunderstanding or miscommunication.”

“Even my own roommate wouldn’t talk to me off the record,” said student sports editor Shelby Iava.

In New York, Kingsborough Community College did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But Therese LeMelle, the director of communications at Bronx Community College, was blunt about reporters causing disruptions.

“We don’t want reporters on campus bugging people as they go about their day,” she said. “If we have any media on campus, they call ahead and we set it up. They don’t just have free rein.”

Attorney Michael Hiestad, who consults with student journalists for a legal assistance agency called the Student Press Law Center, said public colleges can establish rules that regulate the time, place, and manner of visitors for safety and health reasons.

He said LeMelle’s rationale “makes sense to the extent the policy says you can’t barge into a classroom and interrupt a teacher, or go into a library and interrupt studies. When you’re walking across the campus on the quad or going to a car in the parking lot, that doesn’t fly.” At the time of their detentions on CUNY campuses, Nicholas was reporting outdoors; Bachner was directly outside the school gate, he said.

James Verdicchio, the director of public security at Bronx Community College, said the college “is a public school but we screen everybody coming onto the campus.” Gates and security kiosks surround the school, though I did not experience difficulty walking onto campus for my initial, unannounced visit in October.

“A lot depends on how historically they have regulated and policed that space,” said Frank LoMonte, the director of the Brechner Center for the Freedom of Information, an advocacy group based at the University of Florida. “It’s hard to call somebody a trespasser unless you’re also prepared to eject someone walking their dog or having a picnic lunch.”

On Aug. 21, days after Nicholas and Bachner were detained, NYPPA President Cotler sent a letter on their behalf to CUNY Chancellor James Milliken. The NYPPA had not received a response at the time this story was written. Maisel, the NYPPA vice president, said Bachner told him he will not seek legal recourse. Attempts to reach Bachner were unsuccessful.

Loretta Martinez, general counsel and vice chancellor for legal affairs at CUNY, told Nicholas on August 18 that the school had opened an investigation into a complaint he lodged about his treatment. Nicholas has not received further information about the investigation.

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Hiestad said the denial of media access to students—which happened at University of Colorado Boulder and Keene State College—infringes upon their right to free speech. “At the college level these are adults, not children anymore,” he said. “It’s putting a weird bubble around students that says, ‘we’ll protect you from reporters who want to ask questions.’”

“It comes down often to image control,” said LoMonte, the director of the Brechner Center for the Freedom of Information. “You don’t want to authorize students to interact with media because you want to control what’s written about you.”

University of Colorado Spokesperson Ryan Huff said the school disallowed journalists from entering the chancellor’s office during the student sit-in in May because “legally speaking, students should not have been in the office building.” He added, “We let in media and other students say, ‘Why didn’t you let us in?’” He acknowledged the sign barring specific reporters was inappropriate. “The university as a whole fell short,” he said.

Regardless of colleges limiting press access, students may not want to speak with media anyway. A poll conducted by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that 59 percent of students have little or no trust in the press to report the news accurately and fairly. “Any student who doesn’t want to be interviewed can walk away,” said George Freeman, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center.

Some press advocates, such as David Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said Trump bears blame for the restrictive approaches at college campuses. “Can you say every single one of these incidents would not have happened but for Donald Trump? Of course not. But I think they’re the fruit of a poisonous tree that Donald Trump has erected,” Snyder said.

Update: Since this story was published, CJR has learned CUNY sent a letter in response to an inquiry from NYPPA President Bruce Cotler. The letter from CUNY, sent November 13, includes the results of an internal investigation, which found the security officers acted lawfully in both cases.

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Max Zahn is a freelance reporter and a student at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is based in Brooklyn, NY.