More on adviser’s role

I spent the day meeting with the California Journalism Education Coalition, the group that brings together representatives from the state’s high school, community college, four-year college and university, California Newspaper Publishers Association and other related journalism education organizations.

legislation cartoon characterDuring a portion of our meeting we met with Jim Ewert, the CNPA staff attorney who was instrumental in writing the newly passed AB 2581 college newspaper censorship bill. Part of the discussion centered about the adviser’s role in light of the new bill. Should the adviser regularly read copy before the paper is printed or not, even if it just to copyedit spellings, etc.?

No, he said. He feels that the bill suggests that no prior review of the paper should take place by any college official, including the newspaper adviser. “Anyone doing that is leading with his chin and making the college liable should any lawsuits (libel or otherwise).” That would not prevent a faculty adviser from assisting students –preferably editors– from helping students who ask for help, but to routinely read all copy before the paper is printed is a slippery slope that makes the college vulnerable.

We didn’t get much of this from the wonderful announcements that the bill had been passed and signed by the governor, but apparently representatives from the California State University system tried to mount opposition to the bill on the grounds that they felt that the adviser NOT reading the newspaper content would make the schools more liable as a matter of negligence. The counter presented in committee hearings by Cal-JEC chair Sylia Fox and by Ewert was that a bill that PREVENTS prior review by college officials, including advisers, actually protects the deep pockets of the school. All research on suits against student newspapers showed that the school became liable when it had a finger in controlling content, such as prior review by the adviser or campus policies that limited content.

Wayne Overbeck essentially has been telling us this for years at our Morro Bay conference legal updates. With an actual law in place, perhaps it is time to listen.

Since the bill was signed –it doesn’t officially take effect until Jan. 1– one California community college adviser has been told to review all copy prior to publication and has indicated a willingness to put that order in writing. The president ordered this even after being made aware of the new law. Another adviser has been expecting to receive a similar order, but nothing has happened so far; perhaps the president has re-thought the position after talking with lawyers.

And, of course, JACC faculty have shared thoughts on its faculty listserve recently that they think it is their obligation to read all copy. Ewert would tell them that this is wrong, that instead they need to improve their training of students and have them take more seriously the pre-publication review of their own publications. The law puts the responsibility on the students.

The key to remember (in regards to the Jan. 1 start date), Ewert says, is that this law does not change the status quo. It is already the policy that censorship and prior restraint is unacceptable. This law simply reinforces that policy in light of the Hosty v. Carter decision.

The bill that actually changes things for college papers is AB 2612, the bill that prevents theft of freely distributed papers with the intent to 1) prevent others from reading the paper, 2) sell or barter the paper, 3) recycle the newsprint or 4) harm a business competitor. The law says removal of free newspapers from stands with this intent is a crime. While this bill was not written specifically for college papers, they are included. In my years as a student publication adviser I’ve seen student newspapers removed for three of these reasons. Most often it is intent No. 1. Someone does not like the content, so the papers disappear. My lab aide last year caught a student removing stacks of papers just minutes after they were placed on stands because he wanted to recyle the newsprint for cash. And I’ve even seen papers removed because the issue includes an ad for a private textbook store across the street from the campus that competes head-to-head with the campus bookstore.

The trick will be in educating our campus police departments that they should pursue these crimes, even when college officials are involved in the action.

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