Report highlights press restraint at Mich. universities
Long before President-elect Donald Trump was accused of launching an assault on the press, college administrators have used their authority to control, edit or censor student journalism, according to a first-of-its-kind report unveiled Thursday.
The report, “Threats to the Independence of Student Media,” is a project of the American Association of University Professors, the College Media Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Student Press Law Center.
It cites several instances that have become “disturbingly routine” for student journalists and advisers that infringe on their ability to inform the campus community, including cases at Northern Michigan University and the University of Michigan.
“Academic freedom extends to advisers of student media who support the critical work of student journalists,” said Henry Reichman, first vice president of the AAUP. “It’s important to draw attention to these threats to student media and to work toward solutions.”
The report points to the need for a free press at universities nationwide, and highlights several instances of faculty losing their jobs when college or university administrators are disturbed by aggressive student journalism.
It cited the case of former NMU assistant professor Cheryl Reed, who helped transform the student newspaper with reporting on topics such as university bookstore textbook prices, campus sexual assaults and board of trustees’ spending on travel.
But those stories led to tension with campus administrators and Reed, a former investigative reporter with the Chicago Sun-Times, was ousted as the paper’s adviser in 2015.
Derek Hall, an NMU spokesman, said Thursday that the situation came down to a publication board that was mostly student-led, and had a difficult time working together.
“There wasn’t censorship or demands from the university administration,” Hall said.
The report also cast a spotlight on a growing practice of colleges and universities conducting business behind closed doors.
“Trustees of the University of Michigan routinely hold closed-door ‘pre-meeting meetings’ at which all meaningful discussion of agenda items is conducted, rendering the actual public meetings an empty formality at which all discussion is perfunctory and all votes are unanimous,” the report said.
It cited local media reports, reporting that the monthly public meetings are typically shorter than two hours and follow a full day of meetings where issues are discussed privately before public votes. Several lawsuits have been spawned, including one that could go before the Michigan Supreme Court.
Neither UM board Chairman Mark Bernstein nor UM spokesman Rick Fitzgerald could not be reached for comment.
Ron Weiser, a regent elected last month, said he has not been a part of the process yet but supports the Open Meetings Act and thinks critical issues should be aired publicly.
“The public has a right to know,” said Weiser, a Republican who will begin in January.
The report comes the same week that Marty Baron, executive editor of the Washington Post, was awarded the Hitchens Prize and gave advice to journalists as they cover the unconventional behavior of Trump.
In his speech accepting the award, Baron said it was a good time to talk about values since Trump has called the press “disgusting,” “scum,” “lowlifes” and journalists the “lowest form of humanity” and “the enemies.”