The Colorado State University (CSU) student newspaper, The Rocky Mountain Collegian, faced challenges in September 2007 for a controversial editorial and in January 2008 for a proposed buyout by Gannett.
A front-page story in the Sept. 21, 2007 issue of the Collegian discussed a notorious September 18 incident at a University of Florida forum featuring Senator John Kerry, at which a student who repeatedly asked questions was handcuffed and shocked with an electric Taser. The editorial inside the newspaper said, “Taser this: F--- Bush” in large typeface, followed by the words, “This is the view of the Collegian editorial board.”
A firestorm of controversy followed the publication of the editorial. Many student newspapers across the country carried their own editorials supporting or criticizing the editorial, and other mainstream news organizations picked up the story.
On October 1, The New York Times reported that CSU College Republicans responded by calling for editor-in-chief J. David McSwane’s resignation. McSwane refused and defended the decision to publish the expletive.
The Associated Press (AP) reported October 5 that CSU’s Board of Student Communications, which oversees the Collegian, admonished McSwane for violating the newspaper’s code of ethics in a closed October 4 meeting, but ultimately it allowed him to keep his job.
In January 2008, the Collegian found itself on the other side of controversy, following reports that a media company was interested in acquiring the independent CSU student newspaper.
On Jan. 24, 2008, The Tribune of Greeley, Colo. reported that executives from the Gannett-owned Coloradoan of Fort Collins met with Colorado State University officials about a strategic partnership with the Collegian.
According to its Web site, Gannett Co., Inc. publishes 85 daily newspapers, including USA Today, and owns 23 television broadcast stations. The Collegian describes itself as “an independent, non-profit newspaper operating under the CSU Board of Governors.”
The Tribune reported that an e-mail from University President Larry Penley said executives from the The Coloradoan first contacted the president’s office about the offer in 2007. On Jan. 22, 2008, Penley, Coloradoan Publisher Christine Chin, Coloradoan Executive Editor Bob Moore, and the president of the CSU student government met to discuss the possibility of a partnership.
In July 2006, a Gannett newspaper in Tallahassee, Fla. purchased Florida State University’s FSView & Florida Flambeau, the first acquisition of an independent student newspaper by a major newspaper chain. (See “Scholastic Journalism Roundup” in the Fall 2006 Silha Bulletin.) In February 2007, Gannett acquired the Central Florida Future student newspaper of the University of Central Florida.
The Tribune reported that Penley’s e-mail said that in the meeting he asked The Coloradoan to submit a detailed formal proposal. Penley said the university Board of Governors “want[s] to seek opportunities to improve the student experience – including educational and career opportunities at Colorado State University.”
CSU students, Collegian staff, and members of CSU student government spoke out against the proposed deal.
A January 24 Collegian opinion piece by Jennifer Walton, Leah Mori, Adam Gibbs, Anne Waite, Brooke Schledewitz, Jeri Humphries, and Bridget Cass, who are graduate students and recent graduates of CSU’s journalism school, was titled “We will not accept corporate ownership.”
A partnership would “not serve the interest of the student body or our community,” the piece said. It also criticized Gannett ownership of the Coloradoan, saying the newspaper’s quality of local coverage had suffered.
According to a January 29 story in the Collegian, staffers at the two Gannett-owned student newspapers in Florida had “mixed opinions” about corporate ownership. Editors who had worked at the FSView & Florida Flambeau and the Central Florida Future both before and after the Gannett purchases said corporate ownership has not changed their papers’ content or operations.
However, Rob Davis, former photo editor for the FSView & Florida Flambeau said the positive influence from professional journalists was limited. “There was some talk of getting reporters from the Tallahassee Democrat to come over and do some things for the writers for the FSView, but that never really happened,” Davis said.
According to The Denver Post on January 23, McSwane called the proposed partnership “a takeover,” warning, “the next thing you know, we are volunteering for big media.”
McSwane raised his concerns about the plan in a student government meeting on January 23, according to the Collegian. In that meeting, a number of student senators spoke out against the partnership plan, and a resolution condemning it, titled “Endorsement of Independent Student Media,” was proposed but not voted on.
On March 7, 2008, the Collegian reported that Gannett spokeswoman Tara Connell said that the company was focused only on purchasing the student paper, and that it had not considered any partnership after it was told in the January 22 meeting that the Collegian was “not for sale.”
However, after the January meeting, the Greeley Tribune reported that Chin had said that the Coloradoan was likely to continue to pursue a partnership.
The Student Press Law Center (SPLC) reported March 10 that Penley had formed an “advisory committee” in February, which included student media representatives and faculty, to review any proposals made by Gannett or any other parties. No such proposals have been made, and, according to Connell, no one at Gannett has further pursued a buyout or partnership, the SPLC reported.
Although members of the advisory committee questioned the reason for its existence after Connell’s comments were made public, members of the Collegian staff were pleased, according to the SPLC.
“We’re not interested in a corporate partnership,” Collegian News Editor Aaron Hedge told the SPLC. “We don’t want anything to do with Gannett.”
Connell blamed the misunderstanding on the student media that had spoken out on behalf of the Collegian. “The amount of misprint and misunderstanding from the college newspapers around the country is mind-boggling,” Connell told the SPLC.
Loyola University Pulls Literary Magazine from News Racks
In October, administrators at Loyola University in Chicago ordered copies of the student-produced literary magazine Diminuendo to be removed from public distribution areas because they said the contents were “offensive” and “pornographic.”
According to the Chicago Sun-Times on Nov. 4, 2007, the magazine’s central theme was “sex,” and its cover featured a pencil drawing depicting the body of a woman wearing nothing but electrical tape on her nipples, straps across her body and skimpy underwear printed with the word “slut.” Another drawing inside showed a nude man and woman having sex.
The Sun-Times reported that 1,200 copies of the magazine were made available to students in racks around the campus of the private Jesuit university on October 22. After seeing the magazine and consulting with other officials, Rev. Richard Salmi, vice president for student affairs, told Diminuendo adviser and dean of students Jane Neufeld to retrieve all remaining copies of the magazine the following day, the Sun-Times reported. It was subsequently made available only in Diminuendo’s campus office or the office of student affairs.
According to the Sun-Times, Salmi said he thought the cover of the magazine “objectifies women,” and others agreed.
Sophomore Ashley Davis submitted the two drawings to which Salmi took exception. “I don’t think of slut as a degrading term,” Davis told the Sun-Times. “It’s someone who enjoys their sexuality.” She called the uproar “a little ridiculous.”
According to an October 31 story in the Loyola student newspaper, The Phoenix, student government and officials chose not to take any disciplinary action against the publication, although some had initially recommended that funding for the magazine be revoked and its editor fired.
A private educational institution, Loyola University has more power to restrict student speech than would a public university under the same circumstances. According to The Phoenix, Loyola’s “Student Organization Resource Manual,” states “The university reserves the right to determine the appropriate time, place, content and manner for conducting activities and posting and distribution of materials on any of its campuses.” Public universities have less direct control over the content or distribution of student-produced publications than private colleges and universities.
According to the Sun-Times, Neufeld resigned as adviser following the flap. Diminuendo editors said they offered Neufeld the opportunity to review the magazine before it was published but she declined, saying, “I’m not going to censor you.”
A November 6 Sun-Times editorial criticized Neufeld for her hands-off approach. “…there is a huge difference between guidance and censorship,” it said. “Had Neufeld gotten more involved with the magazine, she might not only have saved Loyola the embarrassment of removing copies from the campus, she also might have imparted some valuable lessons to her students.”
– Patrick File
Silha Fellow and Bulletin Editor