In 2016, a committee consisting of representatives from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the College Media Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Student Press Law Center issued a statement titled “Threats to the Independence of Student Media.” The statement acknowledges what all readers of student newspapers are profoundly aware of: “candid journalism that discusses students’ dissatisfaction with the perceived shortcomings of their institutions can be uncomfortable for campus authorities.”
“Nevertheless,” it asserts, “this journalism fulfills a healthful civic function.”
In the spirit of affirming and fostering the important civic function that a free student press must play on our own campus, the Bowdoin chapter of the AAUP would like to take this opportunity to call attention to some of the principles, and some of the concerns, articulated in this statement:
1. “Administrative efforts to subordinate campus journalism to public relations are inconsistent with the mission of higher education to provide a space for intellectual exploration and debate.”
2. “The growing tendency of college and university administrations and their governing boards to conduct business ‘behind closed doors’ and thwart access to critical information and documents has extremely troubling implications for college … governance and the academic freedom of the faculty as well as for the integrity of student media. Even where student journalists are not directly barred from publishing unflattering information, image-conscious institutions may often achieve the same result by choking off access to information.”
3. “Many institutions increasingly filter access to information and to campus decision-makers through public-relations offices. While these offices can serve a valuable role in facilitating requests for records and interviews, they obstruct the work of student journalists and do a disservice to the public when they impede the fulfillment of those requests. Policies requiring faculty and staff to clear media interactions with a campus public-relations office create an intimidating atmosphere that is inimical to the free exchange of ideas.”
4. “No postsecondary institution should require its faculty or staff to clear interactions with the student media through an institutional public-relations office, nor should campus public-relations offices obstruct student journalists from gaining direct access to those in positions of official authority. The community is entitled to hear directly from campus officials about how they perform their jobs and wield their authority—through face-to-face interaction with journalists, not simply prepared statements.”
Finally, in words that must be especially relevant to the Bowdoin community, given its embrace of a model of civic engagement that we proudly call “the common good,” this statement issues the following call to a “cultural readjustment”:
5. “Ultimately, ensuring a campus environment conducive to substantive journalistic coverage requires a significant cultural readjustment that begins with those at the topmost levels of higher education. It is fashionable for colleges and universities to embrace ‘civic engagement’ as part of their educational mission, but effective citizen engagement in campus affairs depends on well-supported news coverage with meaningful and timely access to information. Few colleges and universities are ‘walking the walk’ of civic engagement in their governance of journalism, and too many are abandoning higher education’s traditional commitment to free and independent journalistic voices.”
The writers of the document we have quoted from are addressing what they see as increasingly widespread impediments to the work of student journalists. And we note that these impediments can extend to attempts to prevent faculty and staff from speaking freely to our own student journalists. Perhaps no college or institution is immune to these kinds of threats to the ideal of journalistic freedom. Here at Bowdoin, we call on all of those who are interested in the life of our College (members of the community on campus and beyond) to commit themselves to the kind of cultural readjustment described above. We must hold ourselves responsible for “walking the walk.”
The stakes for walking the walk are significant. First, protecting and promoting the freedom of student newspapers is an extension of our stated institutional principles of teaching the liberal arts and upholding the “common good.” Second, student journalism at Bowdoin has long been the pathway for our students to find meaningful work after graduating as reporters, writers, teachers, public officials or in numerous private-sector careers. Finally, by not upholding the principles of press freedom, Bowdoin again risks attracting unwanted scrutiny from the national media about the gap between its purported ideals and administrative actions. As a recent article in The Atlantic Monthly observed, in an era of “fake news” and partisan spin, student newspapers are more necessary than ever. Yet even well-meaning administrators, eager to preserve institutional comity, are imperiling one institution that has time and again proven vital to the free exchange of ideas and opinions at American colleges and universities.
As the Bowdoin Orient proudly proclaims on its masthead, it is the oldest continuously published college weekly in the nation. Our campus AAUP chapter asks the Bowdoin community to do everything it can to support this singular part of student journalism in America.
The Bowdoin chapter of the American Association of University Professors was founded in 2019.