Two new laws that affect the college student press in California went into effect Tuesday. There was much ballyhoo of the anti-censorship bill that the governor signed last August, but perhaps more important was one he signed a couple of weeks later that made it a crime to steal or remove from stands freely distributed newspapers.
Let’s face it, while the censorship bill, also known already as the Leonard Law, is potentially more important, there was not a lot of censorship, depending on how you define the word, taking place at college papers around the state. Sure, the Hosty v. Carter decision could result in more college president’s cracking down on student newspapers, but you don’t get to be a college president by being stupid. Outright censorship or punishment for what is written is rare. And when it happens, it is the adviser, not the student who gets disciplined. There are already some chinks being reported in this law, such as a student losing standing to sue when, for whatever reason, is no longer a student.
Prior restraint, also mentioned in the bill, is more common, but again is done subtly. An adviser may insist that he/she be allowed to review copy prior to publication as an educational step, or may be required by school administration that copy be reviewed. And who among us, if reviewing copy, isn’t going to do some editing, even if it is to fix a comma error, correct a misspelling or remove a factual error. It’s a slippery slope from review/editing to censorship; best to keep hands off, train students and then trust them, as DeAnza’s Warren Mack used to say. If an administrator –dean on up– tells an adviser to review copy and the adviser doesn’t, it is the adviser who is punished, not the student.
There have been at least two incidences in California since the governor signed the law that advisers have been rebuked for allowing students to exercise their free press rights. In one case, the president, in a rare case of temporary stupidity, immediately had newspapers removed from stands, even yanked out of the hands of readers.
Which leads to the other law, which is probably more important for the student press, even though the law applies to all California newspapers that are freely distributed. The law makes it illegal for anyone to remove more than 25 copies of a freely distributed newspaper from stands with the intent to
Recycle the newspapers for cash or other payment.
Sell or barter the newspaper.
Deprive others of the opportunity to read or enjoy the newspaper.
Harm a business competitor.
While we’ve seen item a. be the reason for removing papers from the stands at Cerritos College, it is item c. that will come into play most often at the college campus. We’ve seen it happen frequently in the college press here in California and it happens frequently, perhaps more frequently each year, nationwide. Someone is unhappy with an article in the paper and removes them from all stands. At Pasadena City College last spring, one disgruntled reader was so bold as to shred the stolen papers and return them to the newspaper office in trash bags. At Glendale College it is suspected that campus police may have been ordered by the college president to remove papers from the stands. And at Fresno City College earlier this school year the first issue of the year was removed from the stands when the president didn’t like the banner headline and story on the front page; the paper was redistributed after being reprinted without the offending story.
With the law going into effect, it might be a good time to think about what your publication will do about it. One suggestion would be to post a note on all distribution stands indication that California law now makes it a misdemeanor to remove freely distributed newspapers from stands with one of the four intents in mind. The Student Press Law Center also suggests other steps you might take to protect your products if you haven’t already done so. One in particular, I think is important for us to do, and that is to establish ties with campus and police officials and discuss what will happen when papers are removed and reports are filed.
At Cerritos College, for instance, we have a student court system that college officials would rather use than involve outside legal authorities. And what happens if the offender is a college employee and not a student? Or what if the college employee responsible for the removal is the college president? How anxious are campus police going to investigate fully that crime? And what if a college decides to electronically block an off-campus student publication (i.e, a College Publisher site) from all campus computers with intent c. in mind?
At Cerritos we’ve asked for –but have yet to be granted– a meeting with the vice president of student affairs and the head of campus police to talk about this issue. If papers are removed from the stands by a student or an employee, we’re not so much interested in legal action as a reversal or prevention of the crime. If we can get together ahead of time and work out what steps will be taken immediately when a removal is reported, we might be more successful than if we wait until the removal has taken place to educate the campus police about the new law. In our case, I don’t think it is a reluctance to do that, simply a matter of priority and time in the last few months. But now that the law is in effect, there is more leverage to ask for such a meeting of the minds. We need to be reasonable, not defensive or demanding.