"How to Find Black Journalists," reads a catchy headline in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. "News organizations are forever straining to find African-American new hires," the accompanying article begins. "But if they really want to make a difference, here's an idea: Rather than fight over the cream of a scarce crop, why not seed the ground?"
It's a great idea, except that the seeds won't sprout unless the "water bearers," colleges and universities that teach budding journalists, do their part. You'd think that administrators at historically black institutions would do everything in their power to help students launch careers in the predominantly white media industry--and many do. But other schools are putting their image above students' First Amendment rights, resorting to heavy censorship and "my way or the highway" ethics.
Earlier this month, administrators at St. Augustine's College in Raleigh confiscated nearly all 1,200 copies of the May 2000 issue of its campus paper, The Pen, because they took issue with a front-page story detailing a stabbing incident in a school dormitory. The article included a photo of the victim, Grover Davis, a student who, while in the hospital, was charged by police investigators with possession of a felonious amount of marijuana. In the article, The Pen criticized the administration for lax campus security [See "Students question their campus safety"]. But St. Augustine's president, Dianne Suber, told The News & Observer that "the use of a felon or an alleged felon was inappropriate" for the story. (Suber was out of town at the time of this story, and other school officials did not respond to requests for comment.)
"My view is that [Davis] had drugs. It's illegal and that wasn't right," says Traci Ethridge, editor of The Pen and a recent graduate. "But if the truth is ugly, so be it," she says. "The fact is, somebody got into a locked dorm and stabbed him," which meant that--Davis' drug charges aside--the larger concern was the safety of all students on campus and what the administration would do to ensure it.
Upon learning that the papers had been confiscated, Calvin Hall, former faculty adviser to The Pen, headed for Suber's office to ask for an explanation. When he got there, Suber was out to lunch, but Hall "saw the papers in her administrative assistant's trash can," he says, still rankled by the overt display of censorship. Hall grabbed the papers out of the trash and headed back to his office, where he and other news staff managed to distribute about 100 copies. The rest? Unread history.
Such attempts at censorship are by no means unique to St. Augustine's. "Unfortunately, it's all too common, and it's an even more challenging problem at private institutions where the First Amendment cannot be enforced as it can at public universities," says Pearl Stewart, faculty head of the Black College Communications Association (BCCA) at Xavier University.
While hosting forums across the country to tackle issues such as censorship, media professionals like Stewart have found that, increasingly, college administrators at historically black schools are pre-empting First Amendment rights because they fear negative press and a poor public image--factors that can lead to decreased enrollment and increased budget deficits.
Aware of the incident at St. Augustine's, Stewart says BCCA is "encouraging student editors to meet with administrators to develop guidelines before specific incidents arise." But, she adds, "students themselves must take the lead on their individual campuses and take a stand against censorship and repression while striving for accuracy and excellence in every story."
Some schools have already taken strong stands. In '95, students filed a lawsuit against Kentucky State University after a college yearbook was confiscated because administrators objected to its colors and theme. At Fort Valley State University in Georgia, a former newspaper adviser recently filed a suit alleging wrongful termination due to articles that criticized school officials. While still pending, the outcome of those cases will greatly impact campus news organizations across the country.
Meantime, many schools are enacting policies requiring administrative review of papers prior to publication. When St. Augustine's handed down such an edict earlier this year, the staff at The Pen balked. "We disagreed with that policy," says Billy Williams Jr., the managing editor who also graduated this month. Williams says that he and other news staff consulted with Calvin Hall to outline their concerns about freedom of expression. "We told [Hall] this is not going to happen," says Williams, and that if Hall supported their resistance to the policy, they'd "go to the wire" with him.
"When I took the job, I thought I could build something special, but it was like, 'Well, we don't want anything special,'" Hall says of the administration's attitude toward the paper. And despite his refusal to submit the paper before publication, Hall says administrators knew he'd "fly in a 'V' formation with the faculty on other matters--so obviously I was doing something I believed in."
In late April--before the controversial Davis article but after he'd refused to submit two issues for review--Hall was issued a memo from school officials stating that he was being "relieved" of his duties as the paper's faculty adviser based on his "deliberate insubordination" regarding the review policy. As of yet, no replacement has been named.
"There's a rumor going around that there's not going to be a paper next year," says Traci Ethridge. "There's no telling where all this will lead."
The one place it shouldn't lead to is a dead-end for students like Ethridge and Williams. Ethridge, who recently started working for The Chapel Hill News, says she's taken the incident in stride. "I've wanted to write since I was in high school," she says, adding "it would take a lot more than this to kill" that desire.
But Billy Williams Jr. shrugs his shoulders when asked about his future career plans. While contemplating law school, he's also still thinking about what happened. "What hurt was to know that [Hall] walked in there and saw those papers in the trash. It was like 'Oh, my God, throwing these people's hard work away.'" Williams sighs. "That is how you kill a person's dream."
To keep those dreams alive, students at historically black colleges need to know the seeds they plant matter--and that droughts will not be tolerated.
The Pen's controversial story and photograph are reprinted here in full, unedited except for typos.