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Free Speech And Student Journalism

Free Speech And Student Journalism

When I was a student newspaper editor in the late 80s and early 90s, there was a controversy across the country as newspapers (not including mine) were approached by a notorious Holocaust revisionist who wanted to take out ads promoting “open debate” about the Holocaust.

Some editors nobly turned down the ads, and others, in what I consider naïve idealism, published them in the spirit of what they called free speech. In some cases, campuses or fellow students took action against those newspapers for their decision to publish the ads.

Of course, the right thing to do was to tear up the check, written by an anti-Semite with the clear goal of recruiting more anti-Semites by insulting millions of Holocaust survivors and trampling on the mass graves of the victims.

But rather than opening a debate about the Holocaust, the ads succeeded in touching off a separate debate about the extent of free speech and editorial freedom enjoyed by campus newspapers and their editors, who is ultimately in charge of them, and to whom they are accountable. It became clear that editors and students could no more reasonably argue that there should be no limits on what they choose to publish than could a reporter or editor at a professional newspaper argue that the owner or board of directors has no control over that paper's content. When student papers get tuition dollars or student activity fees, the university they serve, or at minimum its student government, is the publisher.

That controversy came to mind as I read that Yeshiva University has decided to pull its (minimal) funding of an online student publication , The Beacon, after it published an anonymous story about a female student’s hotel-room tryst with fellow Orthodox Jew.

When the editors of the web site were called on the carpet for their decision amid apparent complaints by other students, they made the choice to continue running the web site as they see fit without the funding.

(YU said in a statement to Fox News that it was the student council president who objected to the article and that the administration served as a facilitator to the discussion about the funding).

YU and its student government could have reasonably pursued the issue further, threatening the students with disciplinary action or enjoining the site form using the university's name, logos, office space or resources but it appears they have decided not to.

From my point of view, everyone involved acted reasonably, with YU protecting its brand and asserting that freedom of speech doesn't mean freedom from standards and the students sticking to their guns and realizing that true editorial independence can only come with financial independence. They deserve credit for not invoking a ludicrous Big Brother defense.

Some bloggers and YU students will poke fun at YU as overly puritanical. But this is not an issue of who gets to say what on campus, only who pays the bill for it.

As a post-script, it was disappointing to see the Jewish Student Press Service, an organization with which I was once affiliated, try to fund-raise off this controversy with an e-mail warning that "censorship does still happen." Censorship involves the government. Enforcing good standards in student publications isn't just a right, it's the responsibility of every university.

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