Cherish freedom, student journalists

Richard Ek is a retired Chico State University journalism professor and frequent contributor to the News & Review.

When Chico State President Paul Zingg promised last fall he would never censor The Orion, the award-winning campus newspaper, it turns out he moved ahead of the curve. Now Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has signed into law a bill that prohibits university, college, or junior college administrators in California from censoring the student press. California thus becomes the first state to extend such First Amendment protection. Administrators can still discipline for hate speech, a loosely defined concept, and the laws of libel and slander will still apply.

The new law spotlights a phenomenon noted in 2001 by Dale Harrison, a journalism educator: “The only truly free press is that which is shielded from government control, private interest, and public pressure. To date, the only press that has remained undeniably free is the college press at our best state universities.”

Now we need another law giving students the right to gather news, a tool long sought by the professional press. The constitution grants the right to publish, and a 1938 U.S. Supreme Court decision (Lovell v. Griffin) added the vital companion right to distribute, but Congress and lower legislatures have always turned aside media attempts for legally effective blanket access. Why? Our “free and open” government cherishes secrecy at every level.

For example, while transparency in conducting the public’s business is asserted as its founding principle, the Brown Act open-public-meeting law allows local governments in California to hide much deliberation behind closed doors by stretching the “pending litigation” closed-session exemption to cover matters that are not primarily legal in nature. Similarly, our state Public Records Act is loaded with exemptions from public disclosure.

Student journalists with professional ambitions suffer a rude awakening when they graduate and find their first jobs. In “the real world,” they quickly discover the publisher is the only one who enjoys press freedom. They must adapt to having their stories spiked, heavily edited, cut, or rewritten. Accuracy can become a casualty. Ever fewer newspapers take pride in their editorial product, so some writers come to believe their work functions mainly to hold the all-important ads together. When the bottom line demands layoffs, it has always been true that the only place the newspaper can make needed cuts is the editorial staff.

Press critics often point to a quotation attributed to E.W. Scripps, the 19th-century press baron of Miramar, that states: “Many a good story has been ruined by too much checking of the facts.” In part it explains the attitude that the press is cynical, biased, and inaccurate.