SMU Daily Campus Censorship Debate: Is the Newspaper Responsible for the Pulled Piece?

The Daily Campus, the student newspaper at Southern Methodist University, recently endured an odd bit of censorship.  Administrators at the private university near Dallas removed an opinion piece from the print version of an orientation issue published each summer and mailed to incoming SMU freshmen.

As I wrote earlier this month, the Daily Campus is independent of the university, allowing prior administrative review of only this issue each year in exchange for the froshies’ contact info.  This is the first time a piece has been pulled since this arrangement was put in place in 2007.

Now apart from the irony of the administrative act itself (they censored an article calling for more transparency), a larger question has been raised about the incident: Is the Daily Campus actually complicit in this censorship?

In recent online chatter among college media advisers, one strong viewpoint centered on the newspaper’s censorship claims being weakened by the fact that it entered into the prior review agreement on its own.  The gist of some j-profs’ perspectives: If you willingly agree to possible censorship, who are you to cry foul when such censorship occurs?

As one student newspaper adviser at a school in the Northwest wrote, “I guess that if you make a deal with the devil, the devil is going to call in his marker at some point, so I can’t see why the students would be shocked.  They handed over that control to the administration in order to get the mailing list, and then, in the edition they handed control over, they run a story that would be bound to raise some administrative hackles. Probably not the best print strategy. . . . I’m not trying to sound unsympathetic, but a deal WAS made and it sounds like the newspaper has been collecting on its bargain for several years.  The editors really are shocked that the admin. at some point isn’t going to want to collect their benefit from the deal?”

I asked Jessica Huseman, the incoming editor in chief of the Daily Campus (and the writer of the pulled piece), about these charges of devilish dealmaking.  Her response touches on two important points: 1) The devil is in the details— in this case, the most compelling one is that the agreement was made before current staff had started.  2) Enabling potential censorship does not excuse it being carried out. Simply put, censorship is still censorship, regardless of the circumstances surrounding it.

In Huseman’s words:

It is my hope that we will discontinue this agreement with the administration.  The prior review arrangement was reached before any student currently on staff was at SMU, and even before our current advisor was there.  If they will not give us the addresses without prior review, then I am in full support of pulling the issue entirely and substituting it with one to go out during freshmen orientation.

I don’t think its fair that the current staff was expected to respect a decision that was made four years ago. Nor do I think it’s fair that the verbal agreement allowed the Daily Campus no negotiating power to say what is and what is not allowed to be printed.

In the end, this paper is a valuable introduction to SMU for incoming freshmen, and the administration knows that. But to make the paper a large advertisement for the school instead of making it a realistic depiction of what SMU is both cheats the students out of a proper introduction to the university and makes our paper a farce of what it otherwise would be. . . .

Even if they do have prior review, that doesn’t make nixing a student opinion right or appropriate. I cannot dismiss the irony of nixing an article about transparency– especially since this is the first article the administration has ever pulled from the mail-home edition. Additionally, the article was literally right next to four other articles that were equally critical of other SMU policies.

All four articles addressed the same audience as mine, and all four articles called for the same thing: change at SMU. To pull mine and to leave the others indicates a larger problem of secrecy within the Board of Trustees that SMU would like to keep under wraps.

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