Chico State’s disregard for free speech falls on the campus president, Gayle Hutchinson

Working for Chico State’s student newspaper was an invaluable experience for this fledgling journalist in the early aughts. I first spent a semester as the copy editor for The Orion’s features section. Then came two consecutive semesters as a reporter primarily covering public safety.

One of my first assignments was the Labor Day flotilla back when that event was at its peak—you know, 20,000 drunken college-age folks tubing down the frigid waters of the Sacramento River bound for some orgiastic celebration on a slice of land dubbed Beer Can Beach.

That was it for me—I loved everything about reporting. The art of writing a lede to pull readers into the story, the deadline pressure, the thrill of getting a scoop, the sense of accomplishment when it all came together.

Back then, the campus culture provided a fertile training ground for me and my newspapering peers. More often than not, folks in academia and the community—be it then-Chico State President Manuel Esteban, faculty, staff, City Council members, firefighters or cops—took us seriously by responding to our queries as though we were professionals.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case these days, according to the current staff of The Orion. As the editor of the student-operated publication has opined in recent weeks, the university has obstructed the paper’s efforts to gather information essential to its reporting.

During a visit to campus last week, my CN&R colleagues and I got a rundown of the roadblocks coming mainly out of University Communications—the public relations department that’s had three executive directors in as many years (the last one left on Sept. 6 to care for aging relatives, according to remaining PR folks). We were there to critique The Orion—to give our input on that week’s issue. Being a nosy editor, I asked about the aforementioned editorial. I was especially curious because the same department had given the CN&R the runaround recently (see “Bad PR” and “Crickets,” Second & Flume, Aug. 15 and 22).

But what we encountered was minor compared with what the students say they are experiencing—multiple examples of far-reaching interference. Cases in point: withholding enrollment data and attempting to route all interviews—including with student athletes—through the PR chain.

This isn’t normal. I speak not only from firsthand experience, but also from the view of CN&R reporters Andre Byik and Ashiah Scharaga, who worked at The Orion and graduated in 2012 and 2015, respectively.

So, who’s to blame? Where the buck stops: President Gayle Hutchinson, who was hired in 2016 following the retirement of longtime President Paul Zingg. Ultimately, she gives the marching orders.

What Hutchinson’s administration is doing is an affront to free speech. If she’s not getting the message from the historical record being curated in The Orion’s op-ed page on the subject—or from these very words—someone higher up the California State University chain ought to intervene. Indeed, by continuing on this path, Hutchinson threatens not only her reputation but also that of a campus and university system that over the majority of the past 20 years have underscored the importance of the First Amendment by valuing its award-winning campus paper and journalism in general.

I had a blast talking to the students, and I’m really proud of them for pushing back. My team gave our input on how to effectively step it up a notch. Afterward, I fumed over what they’re encountering. To me, this is personal. Supporting the Fourth Estate has never been as important in my lifetime than it is today, as a demagogue in the Oval Office attacks the media. As is the case with many of the good rank-and-file folks in President Trump’s administration, faculty and staff at Chico State must resist this effort to control the narrative.

Everyone must demand that Hutchinson put an end to this nonsense. Full stop.