Stony Brook, a branch of the State University of New York system, is a public institution. In four years of reporting for The Statesman, Liebson said, she faced a pattern of resistance from her school’s administration. Her access to documents and her ability to interview university officials, she found, were often restricted to the point of smothering even positive stories. In her farewell column in The Statesman upon graduating from Stony Brook last spring, Liebson put her school on blast, condemning the administration—and particularly its media-relations office—for stonewalling the campus newspaper, bullying student journalists away from critical coverage, and putting “a chokehold on their first amendment rights.”
Liebson’s column prompted jaded responses from some readers: Welcome to the real world. This is what it’s like to be a journalist. “That kind of pissed me off,” said Liebson, who had by that point interned in several professional newsrooms, and who now works for The New York Times. “I never ran into as [many] roadblocks as I did as a student journalist.”
When professional pundits talk about dangers to free expression on campus, they typically refer to a handful of incidents in which colleges have revoked invitations for controversial speakers. This, however, is a fringe issue, confined to a small number of universities. The real crisis of campus speech lies elsewhere—in the erosion of student newspapers. These once-stalwart publications have long served as consistent checks against administrative malfeasance, common forums for campus debate, and training grounds for future professional journalists. Today, these outlets are imperiled by the same economic forces that have hollowed out local newspapers from coast to coast. And unlike their professional peers, student journalists face an added barrier: The kind of bureaucratic interference Liebson met at Stony Brook is becoming the norm for student journalists.
Few school newspapers are financially independent from the institutions they cover, says Chris Evans, president of the College Media Association. As a result, college administrators hold powerful leverage over student journalists and their faculty advisers. The need for aggressive student news organizations is as acute as ever. But image-obsessed administrators are hastening the demise of these once-formidable campus watchdogs.
Read: The plot against student newspapers?
The relationship between student journalists and the officials they cover is bound to be adversarial at times. If nothing else, this tension should sharpen young reporters for their post-campus careers. But administrators are tightening their grip. A 2016 study by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) outlined an array of tactics used by administrators to “subordinate campus journalism to public relations” through directly undercutting the rights to free speech on their campuses. Butler University, Muscatine Community College, Wichita State University, and Mount St. Mary’s University have punished or threatened to punish student newspapers for publishing potentially unflattering material. Even schools with lauded undergraduate journalism programs such as the University of Missouri, the University of Kansas, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were among those cited by the AAUP for encroachments on student journalism. Both the College Media Association and the Student Press Law Center have tracked administrative threats to the funding of college newspapers or to the employment of their faculty advisers as responses to critical coverage.