This is what student press freedom looks like

By Kourtney Husnick

Student press freedoms are a common discussion in The Cauldron’s office and in student newsrooms across the country. 

On Jan. 29, that conversation extends from student journalists to their readers for Student Press Freedom Day, a national day of action supported by the Student Press Law Center (SPLC) to celebrate student journalists and “highlight the need to support their independence without censorship or threat to their advisors.” As part of The Cauldron’s celebration, we decided to dedicate our feature section to the cause. 

In the opinion section at the end of the fall semester, we published an article highlighting a small portion of the problems we face as student journalists at Cleveland State University. While we are lucky in comparison to some media groups at other universities, the fight for student press freedoms is ongoing with a range of challenges. 

Why do we need Student Press Freedom Day?

Only 14 states have guaranteed protections for student journalists and their advisors, and Ohio is not one of them. 

On a national scale for over 30 years, “far too many student journalists have been censored by image-conscious school administrators, or intimidated to self-censor or not report on ‘controversial’ topics that matter to their peers and community,” according to the SPLC. 

Students and volunteers have sparked grassroots movements alongside the SPLC to enact “New Voices” legislation that protects student journalists’ First Amendment press rights as a correction to these problems. Ohio’s New Voices moment is just getting started with the help of advocates at Kent State University, Wright State University, the SPLC and Cleveland State. 

By celebrating Student Press Freedom Day, student journalists contribute to the education process of legislators and members of the public who often “seem to misunderstand the important role student journalists play in the community and the value of [their] independent reporting,” as the SPLC explains on their website. 

Student press problems on a national and localized scale

Nationally, student media groups experience censorship and other pressures from their universities in a multitude of ways.

Many student newspapers, including The Cauldron, are not financially independent of their universities. Critical coverage, regardless of how justified it might be, can make university administrators rethink funding for student media in a harsher light, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

Budget cuts occur at other universities at both the student government and administrative levels. While Cleveland State’s student media is funded through a portion of the general fee, our budgets are not guaranteed year to year either. The Gavel, WCSB, The Vindicator and The Cauldron go through a budget building process alongside the other General Fee Units (GFUs) each spring, and approved budgets during that process can be lowered depending on the overall university budgeting process over the summer.

Last year, The Cauldron’s proposed budget for the 2020 fiscal year was approximately $2,200 more than the budget the university actually approved, and two of our 14 issues have been forced into online-only publication to accommodate the cut in funding. FIRE, along with several other nonprofits that advocate for student media, includes budget cuts and the removal of print editions under the umbrella of censorship.

Budget-related censorship is so prevalent that student journalists at the University of Florida started a campaign to support student media called Save Student Newsrooms. They publish editorials on the status of student media, link to donation pages for student publications that are allowed to collect money through online sites and provide ideas for how to help student publications from the community, alumni and student levels.

Another, bolder form of student press censorship is newspaper theft. While The Cauldron has had limited experience with this problem over the last few years, theft and destruction of our publication has been an issue from time to time.  Most recently, our staff found one issue shredded in the display case last semester. The Vindicator has also seen this problem in the past, and their publication includes a disclaimer stating that “magazine and newspaper theft is a crime; limit one per person.”

Newspaper theft is a common problem for student media when students or faculty have a problem with coverage. In 2018, Butler Community College in Kansas faced newspaper theft after reporting on the arrest of a college football player on capital murder charges. The University Press at Florida Atlantic University experienced newspaper theft at the beginning of the fall 2019 semester when an issue’s cover story detailed the account of a female student who alleged the school’s starting quarterback raped her in the prior academic year.

Critical or crime-related coverage is a typical cause for newspaper theft across the country. While student newspapers come at no extra cost, newspaper theft is still a real crime student publications experience on a regular basis.

This is what student press freedom looks like

The SPLC announced this year’s Student Press Freedom Day theme as “This is what student press freedom looks like.” Student newsrooms across the country will be sharing how they’re celebrating using the hashtag #StudentPressFreedom on social media Jan. 29.

Approaching Student Press Freedom Day, some Cleveland State students and faculty members shared their views on what student press freedom means to them.

For Amanda Light, the president of the university’s Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) chapter, Cleveland State appears to have improved in recent years on supporting student press freedoms. She recalls an issue of The Cauldron from 2018 where racks were emptied and a section of each paper was blocked out in black marker.

“Student press freedom means that students can report on issues that matter without censorship or fear of retaliation,” Light said, answering what student press freedom means to her.

Light uses her position as SPJ president to get students engaged in the world of journalism outside the classroom.

“My vision for SPJ at CSU is to be the meeting place for all campus media,” she explained. “SPJ as an organization is a great way to get embedded into the community of journalism. This semester, we welcome a new board, and we are excited to offer more workshops and networking events for students and to collaborate with other clubs on campus. We would also like to fundraise to help give students access to equipment, similar to how the Film School offers their students access to the cage.”

One of SPJ’s upcoming collaborations is a partnership with The Cauldron for a presentation from SPLC attorney, Sommer Ingram Dean, on Jan. 30.

Professor Betty Clapp, who teaches the News Media Lab for The Cleveland Stater, shared her views on the subject as well.

“I think the student press, whether in a lab context or independent, enhances the academic experience,” Clapp said. “At the minimum, it gives student journalists the opportunity to practice their craft and hone their skills in preparation for future careers.”

Professional growth is only one aspect of a student media presence’s importance, though.

“In a broader context, the student press gives the university insight into the concerns of its students, and it can give students knowledge about decisions and discussions taking place at the university that affect their academic careers and lives,” Clapp explained. “The freedom to explore and report is vital to the coverage of those components, which leads to an informed university community — an outcome that benefits all the community.”

In the spirit of Student Press Freedom Day’s theme, The Cauldron will be sharing student and faculty responses to reporting our staff has done in the past on the actual date. After all, both positive and negative feedback is a part of what student press freedom looks like.

What is The Cauldron doing to support student press freedoms?

Outside basic reporting, some of The Cauldron’s staff members work to support student press freedoms on a larger scale.

Some editorial staff members recently began discussions with other student journalists and professors across the state to begin advocating for Ohio to adopt its own New Voices legislation. Plans are in the works to involve interested students at Cleveland State in a letter-writing campaign to contribute to the cause.

After the College Media Convention in October, members of The Cauldron’s staff also kept in contact with student journalists at other universities across the country. Whether it’s discussing budgets, sharing advice for pushing back against restrictive university media polices or encouraging one another to keep trying for the public records our peers requested months ago, offering support to other student journalists wherever possible has become a commitment for some of The Cauldron’s staff.

On Student Press Freedom Day and in general, The Cauldron’s goal is to inform and educate the Cleveland State community. Through reporting and offering explanations to editorial decisions, the staff works to create an open environment with a free flow of information at all times.

That said, students don’t have to be involved in a media organization or in journalism to support the cause.

How can CSU students support a free student press?

Student advocates make a big difference when it comes to supporting student-run media. For students looking to get involved and actively support student press rights, the first step is to get informed.

Read the student publications. Listen to WCSB. High readership, ratings and student support make it easier to justify budgets with the university and help sell ads to raise funds when the provided funding is lacking. Engage with posts on social media and visit the publications’ websites. Encourage your friends to do the same.

Take advantage of the forums the student media provide. Contribute articles and photography. Find ways to get involved. Students of all majors are able to submit to The Cauldron and The Vindicator. Especially with opinions, there is an unlimited ability to write for us and make your voice heard.

Come to journalism events. SPJ holds meetings and information sessions. Our staff hosts workshops occasionally. Learn some background information on what journalism looks like at the student level. An educated student body helps us avoid calls for censorship that stem from misunderstandings of what our jobs look like.

Speak up. There are an abundance of stories on the back-burner for our staff that can’t move forward until we have more sources. If you’ve experienced a problem here, there’s a good chance someone else has, too. Sharing information, whether it’s on the record, on background or off the record, gives student journalists a place to start at the very least.

Demand answers from faculty and administrators alongside student media. Interview requests get ignored until after deadlines pass even with advanced notice, and public records request responses can take months. The Cauldron is always looking for people to help followup on delayed or unanswered requests, so reach out and ask how you can help.

On a personal note: What student press freedom looks like to The Cauldron’s staff individually

Editor-in-Chief, Kourtney Husnick

Student press freedom is a big deal for me. I have been on the staff for this publication for two and a half years now, and I’ve seen the struggles student journalists face firsthand.

Every year I’ve been on staff, we’ve seen some form of censorship or threats of it. I would say this year hasn’t been any different, but realistically, it has been harsher than in the past.

I’ve lost friends who didn’t like that I was writing about controversial topics, and I’ve been trying to fight back against budget cuts since I started as the Opinion Editor back in 2017. This job is hard. It comes with sacrifice.

Regardless, I’m happy to be the Editor-in-Chief of this publication. I find more joy in the production of The Cauldron than anywhere else, and I am constantly working to advocate for student journalists. Take a look at the stickers on my water bottle and my laptop or scroll through my Twitter feed, and you’ll see I am all journalism, all the time.

I’m working with a small group of advocates for New Voices legislation in Ohio, and I’m regularly in contact with student journalists at other universities both locally and out of state. I even started a blog solely focused to issues and ideas related to student journalists. The thing is, we’re all struggling. No one has solid funding or support. It’s chaos, but it’s important chaos.

Ultimately, student press freedom means not being threatened with losing my position for writing an article. It means getting responses to interview requests that aren’t just arguments about whether or not I’ll send questions.

I shouldn’t have to file a complaint in court to get public records, but that’s where we are now; although, that is more of a general journalist problem than a student one.

News Editor, Savannah Lewis

We’ve all heard the tales of what the press has to go through to get a story. Pretending to be asleep, being kidnapped or being locked in a mental institution. Reporters go through it to attain the facts and share their truth.

While it is not as drastic or as sensational here at Cleveland State, I have definitely faced my share of struggling for a story. My emails ignored, myself disrespected by being called the wrong name (when my name was clearly right there, mind you). I am not the only one.

Public record requests have gone unreturned, questions unanswered, and I am almost positive we as a collective have received more “decline to comments” than actual responses from some of the faculty here on campus.

But this is why we do what we do. One of the first things you are taught when you study journalism is how journalists are considered the watchdogs. There aren’t many ways for a person or an organization to keep the people in control controlled themselves. This is the one way we, as student journalists, can. We are able to reach out and get a response on tough questions that our community needs to know.

This job reminds me that no response is a response. That sometimes the unanswered record requests and decline to comments are us being told that something isn’t quite right. These unanswered questions are what continuously push us to keep asking.

We aren’t the only ones who should be asking these questions. In a society so connected with technology, everyone can do this. Ask for public records. Ask us how to do it. Tweet at the president of the university. You don’t have to be a member of The Cauldron to ask them your questions. If you don’t want to ask them directly, ask us to ask them.

Student press, to me, means being there for the student body. It’s trying to help others be heard with the platform I am given. It’s just the start to becoming a little louder of a voice in our overflowing network that is our community and our country as a whole. Your voice deserves to be heard. It might sound cliche, but they are cliches for a reason.

Sports Editor, Ben Hercik

While working on this paper wasn’t the first career choice that I had when I came to this university, it is one that I dove headfirst into and have no regrets in doing so. While some of us have had issues when it comes to reporting facts and accurate information, I’ve had issues even setting up interviews with people for my section.

It almost feels like I have to go over 10,000 hurdles just to set up an interview with a coach or a player or two. And sometimes, when I do actually get to set up those interviews, the person that I have to meet for the interview (not the coaches or players, someone from the athletic department) changes the interview to a time that I can’t make.

I’ve also had emails that I’ve sent days in advance of needing the interview go unnoticed until they are too late. Recently, someone in the department that I have to go through to set up these interviews with players and coaches left the school, and I almost didn’t see it in time for this issue.

You would think that a major change like this would be something that you would want to let people that report on the topic know. Leaving reporters in the dark or changing details at the last minute is something that is not professional in the slightest and something that needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

Opinion Editor, Nathan Parin

The first time I ever saw anything that was not painted in a negative light about the LGBTQ+ community was a movie review on the film “Milk” in a magazine. I was about nine years old, and I couldn’t place it at the time, but it gave me a sense of familiarity to some degree.

A free press is important to me because LGBTQ+ people, and minorities in general, have been historically silenced. Having a platform where different perspectives and new ideas can be expressed and accessible is an amazing privilege and a right.

Queer history has been wiped away, changed to fit what was socially accceptable, ignored or lost. Being alive in a time where I can openly write about issues the LGBTQ+ community is faced with is monumental in our history. Being a transgender person and writing on any kind of platform was an unobtainable dream for many older generations, who are still alive today.

I am thankful to be able to exercise the privilege that was fought for by the generations before me. A free student press allows me to stop the cycle of generations’ worth of discrimination and demand a new normal be created for minorities. The Cauldron gives a voice to communities who are too often voiceless, and to me, that is amazing.

——–

Tell us what a free student press means to you via email at cauldroneditors@gmail.com or Twitter @csucauldron. We’ll feature student and faculty answers on our social media on Jan. 29.

 

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