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A failing grade for college censors


When staffers at Baylor University's newspaper recently published an editorial that supported same-sex marriage and likened discrimination against gays to religious intolerance, the president of the Baptist school in Waco, Texas, did not turn the other cheek.

Instead, Robert B. Sloan issued a veiled threat to student-editors. "Espousing in a Baylor publication a view that is so out of touch with traditional Christian teachings," he seethed in the next edition of The Baylor Lariat, "comes dangerously close to violating University policy, as published in the student handbook."

A board of faculty advisers rushed out a statement meekly promising that the Lariat would "avoid this error" in the future. Explaining that the editors would not be punished for their sins, board member Larry Brumley told a reporter: "It was a teachable moment." Teachable indeed. But what was the lesson? At a crucial moment in their development, Baylor journalists-in-training learned to shut up, fall in line and stop questioning authority.

Judging by the consistently tame questioning of America's political leaders and the prevalence of "have a nice day" journalism that features countless stories on dogs with 12-inch tongues and cats that can use a toilet just like a human, it is a lesson that has apparently been taken to heart by many in the mainstream media.

Typical is the go-along-get-along attitude of Edward Wyatt, a former Lariat editor now working at the New York Times. Instead of speaking out in support of the students' fight for free expression, Wyatt scolded the Lariat's editors for not knowing their place. "The journalism students now know the difference between censorship and ownership," wrote Wyatt in a letter to the Internet coffee klatch, adding contemptuously: "If there are newspapers out there that routinely defy their publishers' values on their editorial pages, I have yet to discover them."

With such attitudes in force, it's hardly surprising that the Baylor case is no isolated incident in America. Many school administrators, faced with student editors who test the boundaries, react like the commissars at the old Soviet Pravda.

The notion that you can teach the young to be journalists without respecting their free speech has no place in a democracy. In recent months, there have been several examples of college administrators sending young journalists the wrong message. Barton County Community College in Kansas fired its paper's media adviser after she resisted an order not to run a letter criticizing the school's basketball coach. La Roche College, a Catholic school in Pittsburgh, confiscated 900 copies of the La Roche Courier in which a columnist dared to suggest that "condoms and other forms of contraception could eliminate unwanted babies out of wedlock."

And Long Island University in New York changed the locks on its student newspaper offices and suspended its editor for rigorous reporting -- revealing the failing grades of a former student government president who had mysteriously resigned.

Deplorable in itself, a repressive atmosphere on campus can breed a pernicious self-censorship. Chris Carroll, director of student media at Vanderbilt University and a former president of College Media Advisers, a college censorship watchdog organization, worries that young journalists are increasingly "submissive."

He cites a troubling case at his own university: "I had a freshman who was on something that I think could have been a story, [concerning] our current chancellor, with some of his affiliations with corporate boards outside the school. He kept digging and learning more and more and more, and he talked to the chancellor who scared the living shit out of him. ... He said, 'You know I'm here on financial aid, these people can sue me, ruin me, ruin my family,' and he quit the paper. He's gone."

If colleges discourage young reporters from investigating powerful interests while in school, how can society expect them to probe political corruption once they graduate? When students cower rather than proclaim their opinions on campus, how can we expect them to stand up for what they believe off campus?

Curiously enough, there's a simple, market-driven tactic to convince schools not to strangle free speech in the cradle. Parents who value the First Amendment should steer away from colleges that censor their students. Hitting offending colleges in the endowment would provide dictatorial administrators with a valuable lesson, one they would not soon forget.

David Wallis is the founder of Featurewell, a syndication service. He contributes to the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post and the Observer of London, among other publications. He is the editor of the forthcoming anthology Killed: Great Journalism Too Hot To Print (Nation Books).

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