By Elizabeth Wong, Associate DirectorSome Christopher Newport University employees need a primer in civics, specifically on free speech and censorship. In case you haven’t heard about the most recent incident, last week unnamed “junior staff members” ordered the removal of copies of The Captain’s Log from distribution stands along prospective students’ campus tour routes.
Why? It seems that the front page of the student newspaper contained a less than flattering story about a possible meth lab on campus. In the employees’ zeal to cast the university in a positive light, they have done more harm than good.
The staffers obviously did not consider the public relations mess that would ensue because of the censorship.
Alerted to the papers’ removal Emily Cole, editor-in-chief of The Captain’s Log, investigated and reported the incident to CNU President Paul Trible and Dean of Students Kevin Hughes, as well as to the local media.
On Tuesday, CNU President Paul Trible issued a statement condemning the act and asserted that the employees acted on their own initiative. Trible also pointed out that once the Dean of Admissions was informed of the incident, he ordered the papers found and returned to the stands.
While we’re pleased to hear President Trible say that censorship is not a custom, policy or practice of the University and that CNU fully respects freedom of the press, his words might carry more weight if this were the only conflict that has arisen at CNU regarding the student newspaper.
Towards the end of the 2010-2011 academic year, for example, discussion of funding cuts for The Captain’s Log threatened to shut down the print edition, forcing it to be an online-only newspaper. The administration argued the move to online-only coverage was part of the CNU ‘Go-Green’ initiative and was not an attack on a free press. However, the paper’s staff and faculty adviser didn’t believe the administration’s argument. Instead they saw it as punishment and retaliation because the paper ran stories critical of the administration rather than report fluff pieces. Funding was ultimately restored.
In fall 2011, there was another incident involving removal of copies of The Captain’s Log. In this situation, a student stole and destroyed over 700 copies of the newspaper because she was displeased with an article about the arrest of a former CNU police officer on charges of fraud and forgery.
Taken individually, each of these incidents seems like a minor blip against the First Amendment that can be forgiven. Looking at the whole, however, something more seems to be amiss at CNU. The university does not have a good track record with regards to a free press.
Perhaps the school can repair its reputation some by taking the initiative to proactively promote the constitutional guarantees of free speech and free press instead of continually playing on the defensive. The University may find it worthwhile to hold a school-wide workshop on free speech and the First Amendment, for students and employees alike. As Benjamin Franklin said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”