After papers were removed, a Seattle student newsroom pushed back

The Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University, home of The Spectator student newspaper. Photo via Curtis Cronn/Flickr.

ONE MORNING IN APRIL, Seattle University senior Tess Riski noticed that newsstands that typically held copies of the student paper, The Spectator, were empty. After finding empty stands in multiple buildings, Riski, who is the news and investigative editor for The Spectator, texted her fellow editors that “we might have a problem.”

The Spectator contacted SU’s Public Safety office, which reviewed video footage of the area and determined that English professor Fr. David Leigh, SJ, had removed several stacks of papers. Hours later, Leigh emailed The Spectator and apologized. He said he had removed the papers because he was concerned about students arriving for Accepted Students Decision Day at the private Jesuit college seeing them.

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Why? The cover of that week’s edition was a photo from SU’s 10th annual drag show, featuring a fully-clothed male performer in heels and a wig gesturing onstage. Leigh said he was offended by the picture, and described it as “inappropriate” and “risqué.”

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Riski put together an article about the situation, for which she interviewed SU’s president, Fr. Stephen Sundborg, SJ. Sundborg said he was “very, very embarrassed and ashamed” of the photo, and criticized the paper for publishing it.

“To go and show that pose—indecent pose—on the cover is taking it too far,” Sundborg said. “Anybody who would see that who has a sense of propriety would find that offensive.”

Riski’s article riled the SU campus. Sundborg’s comments were heavily criticized by the school’s LGBT community, and Spectator editor in chief Nick Turner said letters to the editor came “pouring in” from students and alumni. Different departments on campus published public statements in support of The Spectator and the LGBT community, and Kaplan and Riski spoke at a forum the law school hosted about LGBT rights and press freedom. Sundborg changed the theme of his annual campus address to discuss the situation, which turned into a packed public forum. The incident received coverage in The Seattle Times and Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, as well as in several conservative outlets. (Rod Dreher referred to SU as a “freak farm” in The American Conservative.)

Spectator editors tell CJR there has been a pattern of papers being removed during events for prospective students. News editor Anna Kaplan says that a similar incident occurred on an admitted students’ day in the past, when the paper’s cover photo referenced drug use.

A representative from the president’s office tells CJR that they were not aware of any previous incidents, and that student journalists “are given wide latitude and freedom to cover the campus the way they choose to do so.”

Since Seattle University is a private school, the administration is allowed to remove papers from newsstands, something that would be illegal at a public university. SU’s status as a private university is a continual challenge for The Spectator, says Turner, since the newsroom cannot use FOIA requests to access public records and the university has no legal obligation to divulge information to the press.

We tiptoe sometimes just to make sure we’re not crossing the line, and I don’t even really know what that line is. It’s hard to navigate.

While incidents like this are infrequent and the university does not review copies of the paper before they go to print, Riski said that going to a private, Catholic school makes the staff extra careful about what they publish.

“We tiptoe sometimes just to make sure we’re not crossing the line, and I don’t even really know what that line is,” Riski says. “It’s hard to navigate.” Riski adds that newer staff members are especially nervous about doing reporting that portrays SU’s ties to the Catholic Church in a poor light.

This issue is not unique to SU. A report released this spring by a group of student journalists at Christian colleges found that censorship is pervasive in their universities. More than three out of four survey respondents said their publication has faced pressure from faculty to change, edit or remove articles after publication. More than 70 percent of respondents said their newspaper advisors can control what can and can’t be published. Less than a quarter of respondents believed that they had the same press freedoms as reporters at public universities.

The Spectator is organizing to change that for themselves. They are partnering with the faculty government association, Academic Assembly, to establish a free speech policy at SU that would give campus media the same first amendment protections as those at public universities. The policy would make it especially difficult for physical copies of the paper to be removed. Turner says that faculty have been very supportive of The Spectator; if they cannot get the policy passed by the end of this school year, his last, then Turner is confident future editors can do it next year.

Riski—who has interned for The Stranger, Crosscut, and The News Tribune in Tacoma—says her work with local newspapers made her realize just how disenfranchised The Spectator is. (Kaplan interned at The Stranger as well, which gave them both a shout-out for their work.)

“Because I worked at three other actual newspapers where they don’t have restrictions on what they can report on, it’s a stark contrast for me a lot when I’m reporting at Seattle U,” Riski said. “It’s really up to the discretion of the university to decide what information they want to divulge and what they want to withhold.” Those restrictions, says Riski, have made her a better investigative reporter by forcing her to come up with alternative ways of discovering information.

The paper provided a hub for LGBT students and alumni to share how administration comments made them feel, and gave the whole student body a way to keep track of what was happening.

For SU’s part, the university tells CJR in a statement that it has “more to do” to fulfill its commitment to diversity and inclusion, and is creating a task force to consider how it can better support LGBT students. “President Sundborg has made clear that removing newspapers is unacceptable and that there are consequences for such action,” says university spokesperson Dean Forbes.

However, Spectator staff are unimpressed with the university administration’s response. Neither Leigh or Sundborg met directly with any reporters from The Spectator (though Sundborg had a discussion with their faculty advisor). Kaplan says their apologies have been more reactive than proactive, and demonstrate a lack of accountability.

What started as a routine event story about a drag show turned into something nobody at SU could have predicted. Turner, who will graduate in just a month, says that in his four years at SU “we’ve never had a response to anything like we’ve had to this.”

The situation has led to one positive outcome for The Spectator: more student engagement. The paper provided a hub for LGBT students and alumni to share how the administration’s comments made them feel, and gave the whole student body a way to keep track of what was happening. After the initial incident, the paper published a story about the LGBT community’s response, with a rainbow sign spelling out “resist” on the cover.

The Spectator anticipated a similar incident in early May after a few more newsstands turned up completely empty. Public Safety officers looked through security footage again, says Kaplan; but this time, “people had actually just come and taken them all one by one.”

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Carina Julig is managing editor of the University of Colorado Boulder’s student newspaper, the CU Independent, and has written for publications including Al Jazeera, them, and Slate. Follow her on Twitter at @CarinaJulig.