Press freedom is sacred

Student media organizations at AU have long operated free from the control of University officials, and the creation of a media adviser position should not indicate a change from this University's commitment to a free student press.

The student press at AU remains editorially independent, despite the misinformation circulating about the motive behind the new media adviser position.

As a four-year staffer at The Eagle, including a term as editor in chief, I know the student newspaper was never asked or told by a University official whether or not it could run a story or photo.

Our content was never reviewed by an administrator prior to publication.

Present and future student journalists should not fear the hiring of a dedicated media adviser. In fact, the appointment of an adviser is not exactly new. Student Activities Director Karen Gerlach has advised both the student government and media in recent years before she was promoted and her responsibilities expanded.

New potential could come from the creation of this new position. There is talk of designating dollars from the AU Capital Campaign toward fund-raising support of the media groups. The media adviser is a necessary liaison to help provide the resources for media groups to carry out their programs.

AU has had a model media adviser in its not-so-distant past. Ms. Jo Williams was the long-time adviser between the 1960s and the 1980s, whom the Talon yearbook described as "technically part of the administration, [but] there is no question that her loyalty resides with the students." ESPN's David Aldridge and the Washington Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning TV critic Tom Shales were Eagle editors when Williams was at AU.

Across the country there are many successful models for media advising. For example, the University of Missouri provides an adviser for the independent student newspaper, The Maneater, who remains "hands-off" editorially and fiscally, according to former editor Nick Choate.

From my experience, a free student press is part of the AU character. But such freedom should not be taken for granted.

Just this past April the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago rejected the state of Illinois' attempt to censor student-edited college publications in the Hosty v. Carter case. Its decision technically only applies to public school officials in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin, but it sets a nation-wide precedent for college student press freedom, according to information from the Student Press Law Center.

The decision reflects the freedoms at the core of our democracy.

As for my time at The Eagle, I know we held our freedom dear, especially considering that AU is a private institution, not bound by the law to protect students' First Amendment rights. Regardless, it is a point of pride for the publication to be editorially independent, funded solely by advertising revenue, rather than University fees.

But we were not so arrogant as to assume that we were too good to accept advice and criticism. Last summer The Eagle created a new relationship with the School of Communication, which now provides a faculty consultant to the newspaper. Dean Larry Kirkman recognized that a strong student newspaper makes for a strong journalism school. Now The Eagle staff benefits from the post-publication critique discussions with Professor Amy Eisman and continues to improve the publication's content and presentation.

In light of the recent censorship concerns expressed about the hiring of a media adviser, it may be a good time for student media leaders to ask AU's administration to reaffirm and sign off on a statement of support for student press freedom.

It can be a short, simple statement as suggested by the Student Press Law Center: "American University recognizes and affirms the editorial independence and press freedom of all student-edited campus media. Student editors have the authority to make all content decisions and consequently they bear responsibility for the decisions that they make."

Such a statement is certainly in sync with the current practices of the student press at AU.

Brett Zongker is a graduate

student in the School of Communication and is the former editor in chief of The Eagle.

Never miss a story

Get our weekly newsletter delivered right to your inbox.

More from The Eagle