Quinnipiac University Journalism Controversy

There’s a controversy brewing at QU now over the role played by various overseeing bodies of the journalism program. This official response was posted on the university’s intranet today, but I didn’t see any language on that page saying that it was illegal or improper to repost it elsewhere. In the spirit of demonstrating how the internet has changed communication patterns (I *am* an ICM Grad student, after all) here’s the text of the VP’s memo to students.

Please note, I actually agree with her on a number of points, but I believe that a statement like this should have been posted for all to see, not just QU students. Because, Ms. McCourt… when you start even walking the gray area surrounding Freedom of Expression and Freedom of the Press in a school with a graduate level program in Journalism and Communications, you’re going to have to expect and deal with the fact that your every single move will come under scrutiny by someone. Especially in today’s political climate in the northeast, where we liberal types are looking a little wild eyed at all of the rapidly disappearing freedoms and legal protections that the US used to provide.

And speaking as a graduate student, I also speak as someone who understands that since it is student money which pays university funding in a non-research institution, it’s always useful for the administration of *every* school to remember that your students are more than just attendees of your classes… we are your financial backers, your customers, your clients, and ultimately your bosses. Especially in a grad program preparing students to be Masters of Journalism and Communications, we have an implied right to expect that our certifying institution will not just be aware of the complexity of professional media & comunication issues, but that they will demonstrate mastery of maneuvering through such complexity at a level which is above and beyond the level you are trying to instill in your own students. Otherwise, how are you demonstrating that you are competent to certify *us* in these programs at all?

And so we watch. Carefully. And winter break won’t dissuade interested grad students. Please note, Ms. McCourt, I agree with several legal and administrative points you raise. *My* involvement in this is watching as the University handles a potential media circus.

The Response

A memo from Kathleen McCourt, senior vice president for academic and student affairs

In recent weeks, the University has been accused by some of impinging on the free speech rights of its students, not respecting the First Amendment rights of the student newspaper, and in general treating student journalists in ways different from external media. Although reasonable people may have different opinions and reach differing conclusions on the chain of events, I would like to try to frame the matter in its larger context.

The student newspaper, The Chronicle, is a student club and is fully-funded by the university. The paper has a faculty advisor from the School of Communications who advises but has no official authority over this student organization. The student editor is paid a stipend as are leaders of several of our larger student organizations. The university has clearly established policies that guide student media. Some have suggested that the University’s intent in enforcing its policies is to protect the University from “bad press.” To my knowledge, the University has never suppressed stories or prevented the paper from publishing any story.

The fundamental problem may be summed up in three words: accountability and liability/responsibility. Under its current structure, the newspaper has no accountability to any office or individual on campus; at the same time, the University bears all the responsibility and liability for its actions. The difficulty of maintaining a balance is exacerbated by the University’s obligation to protect the privacy rights of all its students. Many campus matters, particularly those relating to student judicial and disciplinary actions, may not be publicly discussed by university administrators. If the student newspaper were to write a story on such a matter, the fact that the University could not provide more than a cursory comment might in itself have the effect that one-sided and potentially libelous stories find their way into print.

For just this reason, most major universities with large journalism programs – Syracuse, Missouri, Columbia, BU, to name a few – have student newspapers that are entirely independent of the university. Those independent newspapers are funded by external sources – advertising – and are not directly affiliated with their universities in any way. Other smaller colleges, generally those that do not have large journalism programs – for example, Providence, Villanova, Wake Forest – have papers funded by the college but also have controls in place to ensure accountability. At Providence, for example, the vice president for student affairs serves as publisher.

Mixed in with this larger structural problem is the university’s practice of treating student journalists in the same way that reporters for the external media are treated. In the “real world,” businesses, including universities, have administrative structures in place to coordinate responses to any number of media queries. At Quinnipiac, the public affairs office has always had the role of coordinating responses for external media, so it does not seem a large leap to expect them to coordinate internal media requests as well. This system, until very recently, has worked extraordinarily smoothly for all of us.

What has recently led to difficulties are student class assignments that may blur the line between journalism and homework. If such an assignment is journalism, then administrative responses should be coordinated through public affairs. If it is homework, then the responses need not be coordinated through that office, but the expectation should also be that the homework is not going to be published.

Both First Amendment rights and privacy rights are extraordinarily important to all of us as citizens and as members of a university community. We are not the first institution to struggle with the appropriate balance.

In the long term we will address the structural issues of the student newspaper, but in the short term, I would simply ask that you give consideration to the complexity of these matters as we work this out. Dr. Manny Carreiro and I will be leading a small task force to review what might be the best structure for a student newspaper at Quinnipiac. If other university models are any indication, it appears that an independently-owned newspaper may be the long term solution. However, some shorter-term structural changes might address the legitimate University concerns while enabling the newspaper to continue to publish without jeopardizing the privacy rights of all students.


5 responses to “Quinnipiac University Journalism Controversy

  1. I’m curious what in this you find to agree with. I hate to say it, but find very little common ground with this statement, and plenty that is really off-base.

  2. The college is paying for the newspaper. That, unfortunately for the students, changes everything. Since the college isn’t publicly funded, there’s no protection for 1st amendment rights because students opt in to a private university and therefore tacitly accept that institution’s rules above and beyond basic freedom of speech protections as a precondition for attendance. U.S. Supreme Court ruled as such in the mid-90s, if I recall correctly.

    In other universities, the college doesn’t own the newspaper, the student government does. As a student-funded institution, they are subject to the bylaws concerning university clubs, but come under no pressure from authority beyond adhering to the guidelines for any student club or organization.

    What’ll be interesting to see is how the question of web space will be resolved. If the student newspaper relies upon the server space of the university, who gets control over what is printed? Are there resources available to other school groups to host their websites on school servers?

    I agree that there’s tons “wrong” with the sentiments expressed above in a ‘perfect world’ scenario, but when the bill is being paid by the college and there’s no public/state support for the institution, then there’s legal precedent against the students in this case.

    It would be interesting to do some research into how the concept of ‘branding’ has affected US Law, but without the law degree I’m afraid that researcher won’t be me anytime soon.

  3. I’m responding here instead of your update, since I didn’t see this before. Sorry I wasn’t clear; I think there was some common understanding that the university had the legal right to do whatever they want with the Chronicle. In that, she is absolutely right. In suggesting that the lack of a legal protection of that right justifies its abrogation in policy, or that there are concerns more pressing than the right to free expression, I think she is *way* off base.

    But that doesn’t extend to the moral right. Prof McCourt wrongly assumes in this letter that the right to free speech exists only in the First Amendment; it doesn’t. It’s a basic human right, and a particularly important right–from a practical perspective–on a university campus. Moreover, since we consider teaching the necessity of freedom of expression and access to information at the core of the mission of the School, it violates our ability as a School to teach at a level expected by our students and promised by our university.

    So, the legal question is moot, as far as I am concerned. The question is why a university would establish a policy that damages its own reputation and ability to educate and train professionals.

  4. They’re not responding as a university. They’re responding as a business.

    Nothing in their response indicates that they view education or free inquiry as the purpose of QU. In fact, quite to the contrary. They are concerned about managing their brand imaging so that they can better attract the cash cows… I mean ‘students’.

    I don’t think that attitude applies to the academic faculty in general, but the comments by Pres. Lahey are pretty pathetic before we even get to Prof. McCourt. He showed straight up that he wasn’t concerned at all about the issues or the sensitivity of the issues surrounding the racial slurs on campus earlier this semester, he was more concerned with preserving the branded facade.

    It’s just highly ironic that this happened at Quinnipiac. I mean, part of the cornerstone of the curriculum deals with either Journalism or Communications, and our administration failed both… miserably.

    I disagree that this damages the reputation of the institution as a whole. If anything, it showcases that the students are getting the message even if the Administration is failing to do so. Perhaps this is just another sign of the cultural and social revolution currently underway thanks to the internet and digital communications technology.

    I think that at the very least, Lahey owes the Chronicle and the Journalism department an apology for the insult to their professional practices, the one in the practice of journalism and the other in the practice of training future journalists.

  5. Pingback: Kathleen McCourt Authors Letter to Students « Campus Copy

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