This article is the first in a two-part series that will look into student organizations’ autonomy at William Jewell College, and by extension, other private colleges around the country. We will begin by unpacking an issue that affects “The Hilltop Monitor” especially, and that is censorship.
In our recent April Fools’ issue, the Monitor poked fun at the notion that we are censored by the administration. In our “Essence of Jewell” parody, I speak as the Editor-in-Chief of the Monitor. I begin by saying that I enjoy being on the Monitor’s staff, as it is a great platform for creativity and artistic development. But as I start to say that I wish there was less oversight over what we publish, there is a knock at the door, and I come back into the room to retract my statement. In the next scene, the hand of some ominous off-camera figure points to a document in front of me, instructing me what to cross out in black marker.
This is, of course, a dramatization of the degree to which the administration and the Office of Student Life control what the Monitor publishes. All of the stories that the Monitor has published this year have come from the editorial staff, and it has been the editorial staff that decides whether or not we publish a story (and this is usually determined by quality, not content).
However, there is a precedent of Student Life ordering us to not publish content, so it would not be true to say that there is no oversight, no censorship. In our 2016 April Fools’ issue, student life ordered us not to publish two satirical articles, one that joked that Jewell students travelled to Colorado for Spring Break to buy marijuana and bring it back, and one that poked fun at “meninists,” which refers to a group that advocates for male rights.
The Student Handbook accounts for this censorship. The status of student publications at Jewell can be found on pages 27 and 28 of the handbook. The relevant passage that, albeit indirectly, addresses censorship follows:
“It is expected that student publications adhere to the rules of professional journalism, avoiding libel, pornography and invasion of privacy. Editorials, news features or advertising columns shall not encourage the breaking of any William Jewell College policy or local, state and/or federal laws. Dissent and criticism, while an acceptable dimension of the educational experience, are to be phrased with courtesy and respect and are to be presented in a responsible manner. Additionally, freedom of expression is not interpreted to include the public use of obscene language or profane expression.”
The acceptability of a Monitor article is a matter of interpretation as outlined in the Student Handbook. If an administrator believes that a satirical article about students bringing marijuana back from Colorado is “encouraging the breaking of” laws, or that an article poking fun at meninists is not “phrased with courtesy and respect,” then they maintain the authority to prohibit that content from being published. This is important to note because the editorial staff does not always have the final say over what is published. Rather, it is the administrator’s interpretation of Student Handbook policy that matters in the end.
The Monitor advisor, Sara Bailey, the Director of Student Engagement in the Office of Student Life, screens all of our articles before they are published, including this one. If there are any concerns about the acceptability of an article, such as our April Fools’ stories last year, they are sent up the ladder.
Normally, this does not affect the Monitor’s operations. In fact, during my time as Editor-in-Chief, no article has been denied publication. For all intents and purposes, the editorial staff maintains control over what is published. Yet, it should be recognized that there is an authority, the Office of Student Life, which has the ability to overturn editorial decision.
This degree of oversight, such as an advisor screening content for acceptability, is unusual for most student publications, but not for private institutions. Public universities, such as the University of Kansas, are protected by freedom of press rights under the Constitution. Last year, KU’s student-run newspaper launched a lawsuit against the school’s administrators. The lawsuit was dismissed, but this degree of autonomy is absolutely not accorded to the student publications of private institutions, such as “The Hilltop Monitor.”
Private institutions maintain the right to determine the grounds on which student publications are governed. Publications at public universities are compelled to abide by local, state and federal law, whereas private institutions have the ability to determine their values and regulations themselves. Federal law protects the independence of private institutions, as it gives people the ability to band together under shared values and interests.
So, by choosing to attend a private college, Jewell students then choose to adhere to the College’s policies. What matters for the Monitor, then, is not the constitutional right of freedom of the press, but what the College considers as acceptable per its values. It should be noted that the Monitor’s editorial staff does not endorse this position, only stating that this is the reality.
This can be a rather dubious distinction when it comes to what the Monitor can and cannot publish, and ultimately it relies on administrative interpretation of the Student Handbook at any given time. But this is an authority that we, as a publication, acknowledge as legitimate.
The power of the administration to determine student policy is, in a word, absolute. And this absolution is enabled by our enrollment.
This does not mean that students’ opinions are obsolete, or that the Monitor should not be critical of the administration or Student Life. Stay tuned for part two.