“Freedom of the Press for College Students: A Two-Part Rationale”

(*See also AB 2581 in California)

Downtown Oxford, March 2005.

“Freedom of the Press for College Students: A Two-Part Rationale,” presented by Allan Lovelace in March 2005 at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom:

“Freedom of the Press for College Students: A Two-Part Rationale”

Originally presented at the Oxford Education Round Table, March 2005

& Journalism Association of Community Colleges annual convention, April 2005

By Allan Lovelace

(Updated June 2005)


"Freedom of the Press for College Students: A Two-Part Rationale."

Administrators who do not appreciate the advantages of freedom of the press for college students are more likely to attempt to censor them. Faculty advisers to student media, however, see evidence every day that student journalists and the public benefit from freedom of the press.

Drawing on John Merrill’s call for journalistic autonomy, this paper examines the benefits of freedom for student journalists to develop their own voice. Current and former student journalists are interviewed to discuss the impact freedom of the press had in providing them with opportunities to learn from their successes and mistakes in working with student media.

Drawing on Malcolm MacLean’s call for student journalists to feel a responsibility to their fellow humans, this paper also examines some of the benefits freedom of the press provides for the public. Current and former student journalists are interviewed about their stories that had an impact and led to significant change.

Administrators who are not aware of the advantages of freedom of the press for college students are more likely to attempt to censor them. Faculty advisers to student media, however, see evidence every day that student journalists and the public benefit from freedom of the press. There is a need, then, for faculty advisers to student media to share with the academic community their insight into the benefits of freedom of the press for college students. To do that, faculty advisers to student media can draw upon the ideas of great thinkers on the topic of press freedom, give examples of student journalism success stories, and explain the need for members of the academic community to be patient and understanding when they interact with student journalists. While many prominent thinkers have expressed support for freedom of expression, two journalism scholars – John C. Merrill and Malcolm MacLean -- stand out with their very different press theories; when their arguments for freedom and responsibility are combined, a persuasive synthesis results that provides a two-part rationale for freedom of the press. The benefits of freedom of the press melded with social responsibility are both immediate and long term for college students: They develop their voice when they have the freedom to experiment and discover what works for them; the public benefits when student journalists discover that what they do can have profound effects on people’s lives.

Some background is in order to establish how freedom of the press has developed to its current status for college students. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution paved the way for freedom of the press in 1791 with its press clause: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” The U.S. Fourteenth Amendment extended freedom of the press in 1868 by prohibiting the states from violating constitutionally protected freedoms. The U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed these protections with its Gitlow v. New York decision in 1925 when it said that the rights of freedom of speech and press are "among the fundamental rights and 'liberties' protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment from impairment by the states." And in one of its most important free press decisions, the U.S. Supreme Court said in its New York Times v. Sullivan decision in 1964: “We consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide open and that it may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” Important court decisions involving student expression include the Trujillo v. Love decision in 1971, which held that college administrators could not require the student editor to submit controversial content to a faculty adviser for review prior to publication. An appellate court said in its Milliner v. Turner decision in 1983 that because the First Amendment prohibits its censoring student expression, a university is not liable for student media content it cannot legally control. A Minnesota appeals court in March 2005 upheld a district court's decision that St. Cloud State University is not liable for defamatory statements published in the student newspaper, reaffirming the principle that colleges that do not censor college newspapers will be shielded from liability for what the students publish. In Hosty v. Carter, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit has decided that college student journalists in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin have no more First Amendment freedom than that of high school students – but an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is being prepared.

Statesmen, philosophers, and international organizations have made important contributions in defense of freedom of expression. Thomas Jefferson, in a quote now engraved on the exterior of one of the Los Angeles Times buildings, writes: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Jefferson made this bold pronouncement because he believed that a free press was a precursor to democracy, while a freely elected government that censored the press was heading down the muddy road toward totalitarianism. John Stuart Mill, in “On Liberty” in 1859, made such a logical two-part argument for freedom of expression that it would be difficult for a reasonable person to argue against it: “The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race, posterity as well as the existing generation – those who dissent from the opinion, still more than those who hold it. If the expression is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth; if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth produced by its collision with error.” The international Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ Article 19 made clear in 1948 that freedom of expression is not “granted” by a benevolent government to its people (or to its student journalists!), but rather it is a basic human right all people throughout the world are born with. Article 19 states that “(e)veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

John Merrill, in his book “Existential Journalism” in 1977, emphasized the importance of freedom for the individual journalist when he defined an autonomous journalist in part as one who “accepts and uses freedom – personal and journalistic. He is dedicated to freedom; it is his imperative, and as an existentialist he sees his freedom as everyone’s.” Such freedom was essential for journalists to find meaning in their work, Merrill believed. In “Existential Journalism” Merrill writes of the need for individual journalists to make use of what freedom remained in the 1970s. “Press freedom is dying everywhere,” Merrill writes. “This ‘sense of freedom’s doom,’ this anxiety, leads to a concern for involvement, to a commitment to commitment. No more is the journalist satisfied to simply muddle through the day, doing the same mechanistic duties, being caught in the ever-deepening rut in the newsroom. There is a new dedication to commitment, to making every day count, to pushing back the limits of restrictions, to suggesting the unorthodox, to daring to be honest – in short, to making oneself into an ever more authentic journalist.”

The strong libertarian emphasis on press freedom that was manifest to varying degrees in America’s history from its revolutionary years was de-emphasized somewhat from the 1940s through the 1980s as many media critics and journalists themselves embraced social responsibility with its emphasis on public service. This transformation did not come without opposition or concern. Merrill warned in “The Imperative of Freedom” in 1974 about the weakening of journalistic freedom that could result in a move away from libertarian press freedom to social responsibility when he wrote that “(a)ny power to make the press ‘responsible’ or ‘accountable’ is the negation of liberty; if society, or a press council, or a judge, or a jury, or any other non-journalistic group assumes the power to define for the press what ‘responsible’ journalism is, then liberty is surrendered. It is just that simple.” And J. Herbert Altschull pointed out in “From Milton to McLuhan – The Ideas Behind American Journalism” that journalists can only be responsible if they have freedom: “You must be free to make the choice. If your choice is not free, if you are forced to act under threat, you are not responsible for your behavior. The one doing the threatening is responsible.” By the 1980s, however, the move toward social responsibility even drew Merrill aboard. In his 1989 book “The Dialectic in Journalism,” Merrill moves toward a moderated view of press freedom when he writes: “So we can see that the thesis (freedom) is presently being attacked by the antithesis (social control). From this dialectical cauldron is emerging a synthesis of social responsibility – a moderated and socially concerned use of journalistic freedom.”

Malcolm MacLean, head of the journalism department at the University of Iowa from 1967-1972, wrote passionately about the need to emphasize social responsibility in journalism education. In his lecture “On the Education of Responsible Newsmen” presented in 1968, MacLean said: “I see an implied demand that our communicators need to know deeply, emphatically, and at the same time to be able to analyze objectively and communicate what it means to be poor among the rich, to be hungry among the well-fed, to be black among the white, to be degraded among the smug, to be sick among the healthy, to be unheard, unheard, unheard…in a society noisy with messages.” He defined what it meant to be a responsible journalist as “knowledge of sensitivity to the consequences of your decisions, of your actions or inactions.” In his lecture “Journalism Education at the University of Iowa,” presented in 1970, MacLean said that journalism educators must go beyond teaching fundamental skills and emphasize to their students the need to serve the public. MacLean writes: “Suppose that I, as a journalism teacher, ask myself: What am I for? If I close in on that question at one level, I might answer: I am for teaching young people to do the things that journalists do. In a sense, I make myself an agent for the journalistic industries and for the young people who want to become journalists…If I approach that question from another level, I might answer: I am for helping people to discover and fulfill the information needs of their communities. Thus, I make myself an agent for members of the larger society.” MacLean said in his lecture that if the media met the needs of their communities, then his teaching students to acquire basic journalism skills and approaches would be adequate. He claimed, however, that media were failing to fulfill that need. In his “Position Paper for the Ad Hoc Committee on Media Evaluation,” MacLean identified what he believed journalism students should be taught. “I suggest,” MacLean writes, “we journalism teachers might reach our greatest impact by developing our journalism schools to make heretical, subversive infiltrators of our graduates. What might be the nature of such a heretic? For one thing, he is at least as competent as our graduates of today in basic communicative skills…That means he can write well and appropriately. He can use a camera effectively, produce pictures which say something. He can film and knows how to handle video and audio tape and other tools of broadcasting. And he knows how to put these together in packages which make a real difference to his intended audience. Our heretic is deeply concerned about the human condition. He cares about the consequences of his work – not just the immediate results, but especially the long run. He has high purpose…Our heretic has courage, patience, and, in battle, a tough skin. He knows that any basic change makes waves.” MacLean, while a liberal and advocate of social change, was not a revolutionary, as he demonstrated in his description of the “heretic” journalist he hoped to prepare. “If he is a good infiltrator,” MacLean writes, “he won’t need to overthrow the establishment. Rather, he’ll help to make it an establishment that works. In some communities, he may find that the only way to fill the communicative needs of a community is to create his own enterprise. Our heretic gains the initiative, drive, and skills to do that.” Of course, almost 40 years after MacLean urged journalism educators to prepare “subversive heretics,” we are witnessing young people creating their own enterprises now, with the millions of blogs that are sprouting up and drawing in some cases more hits on the Internet than that of local news media Web sites.

Many college students are attracted to journalism because they see it as an occupation that offers the possibility of making a difference through public service. Malcolm MacLean’s father, Malcolm MacLean Sr., encourages educators to nurture that spirit in all students when he writes: “(T)here emerges gradually in most normal young people of high school and college age an urge toward idealism and altruism. Hurt or made doubtful by what they see around them, they dream of a better world and develop a desire to reform, improve, and change the life of humanity from what it is to something far better. If this idealism and altruism are supported by their teachers, it may lead to personal and social growth toward sound democratic citizenship.” Journalism students who made a profound difference include John McGauley, a former news editor with Ball State University’s student newspaper in 1989-1990, who exposed serious problems in a science building’s ventilation system. Although Ball State administrators had for years downplayed the dangers from chemical fumes in the building, they eventually agreed to fix the problem with a repair job that cost more than $1 million after McGauley’s stories revealed the threats to public health. Northwestern University journalism students assisted a professor in proving the innocence of several men on death row in 1996. And at Riverside Community College in California, student journalist Mary Shelton, who won a national story of the year award in 2003, reported about toxic conditions in the college’s poorly maintained buildings. Shelton, in a particularly candid editorial with the headline “Is there a fungus among us?” writes: “And the Quadrangle is a perfect place for these molds to call home, just as it was for the Norway rats, the mice, opossums and skunks that paved the way, with their rotting carcasses and piles of fecal matter that provided nourishment for the organisms to survive and prosper” (quite descriptive!). Shelton said the silver lining of studying in such a filthy, unsafe building was the opportunity to learn from reporting about the problems while trying to make a difference. “It's the power of the press in action,” she said, “to perform public service, which is what journalism is all about.”

Students learn best when they have the freedom to follow their own conscience, discover what works for them and find their own voice. For example, Tim Guy, editor-in-chief of the student newspaper at Riverside Community College, said he and his fellow student journalists benefited in 2004 by having the freedom to take responsibility for their work when they produced a national Pacemaker newspaper. Guy said: “It helped knowing that the staff and I did not have various people watching our every move to make sure it was appropriate, being able to decide for ourselves what was best to be in the paper.” Kevin Pearson, winner of a national first place story of the year award in 2000 at Riverside Community College, demonstrated the kind of bold approach to journalism that Merrill advocated in his call for journalistic autonomy. Pearson said: “We didn't sugar-coat the news, as too many college papers often do, and we reported what we saw, what we knew, and did so with our journalistic integrity in mind.” And Agnes Diggs exercised both freedom and responsibility in her student journalism when she exposed problems at Long Beach City College with nonexistent classes and at Chapman University with a football eligibility scandal. Diggs said: “Knowing I have the protection of the U.S. Constitution and being aware of the attendant responsibility makes me more tenacious and more careful when reporting and writing.”

Student journalists learn not only from their successes in serving the public, but from their mistakes as well. Although a university professor thought a student was intentionally using a clever technique to get the point across that funding for education was inadequate, the truth is that when the student misspelled the word “Education” in a headline it was a mistake – a particularly embarrassing one. And when a student journalist wrote a photo caption that read “Unveiling the plague” -- under a photo of a plaque unveiling ceremony in honor of a private college president with a giant ego -- he learned a valuable lesson about the need to double check cutlines before publication. But in nearly every case, students learn from their mistakes. “Everyone is going to make mistakes,” Shelton said, “because even though you are taught to be conscientious and meticulous about your work, some lessons only stick if you learn them the hard way…I still make the occasional mistake and deal with it honestly because that's the only acceptable way to handle it.” I learned that lesson as an undergraduate after I complained in a student newspaper editorial about a scholar in his speech using words I assumed many fellow students would not understand. A professor met with me later, and after he patiently explained my mistake he calmly and respectfully requested a correction; when I agreed to publish one he immediately withdrew the request, saying that he just wanted to make sure that I understood that I had made a mistake in my story. His example of how to disagree with a student journalist by turning a private meeting into an effective teaching moment should serve as an example for everyone in academia of how to constructively help student journalists learn from their mistakes. Soon after my meeting with the professor, Garrett Sheldon, we became good friends. After I recommended him, he received the Professor of the Year Award for the state of Virginia.

Another effective method of helping student journalists learn from their mistakes – and their successes – is with a thorough but respectfully delivered student media critique session, given either by a professional journalist or the faculty adviser. Students’ successes should be pointed out first and they should receive the most attention during the critique. In his 1956 book “Change and Process in Education,” Malcolm MacLean Sr. notes that effective teachers recognize that “praise and reward – for even small accomplishments – must exceed blame.” As long as critiques do not go beyond constructive criticism, then instead of chilling expression they have the potential to help students learn from their mistakes. MacLean Sr. points out the benefit of criticism that is not too harsh: “Psychological research demonstrated that mild frustration stimulates learning and contributes to the growth of personality.” The goal is to help students develop their own inner guide. “The democratic ideal we struggle to achieve,” MacLean Sr. writes, “is that each of us shall attain a state of self-discipline and maturity so that we have the power to make the right choices among alternative ways of behaving.”

One of the institutions college students want to improve is that of the media. They know that so much of the media today treat the news as if it were what Neil Postman decried in the 1980s as entertainment designed to leave us “Amusing Ourselves to Death.” While hundreds of millions of people in the wealthier nations know extensive details of Britney Spears’ love life and Bill Clinton’s infidelities, far fewer are aware of the complexities of global warming or species extinction or widespread poverty – or that these problems are largely human-caused. A related global crisis, reported by the World Wildlife Fund in its Living Planet Report for 2004, is that humans are consuming natural resources 20 percent faster than the planet can produce them; few Americans know that the United States, with 5 percent of the world’s population consumes more than 20 percent of the world’s resources. These problems demand urgent action, as time is running out to reverse the effects of pollution and overuse of the planet’s resources. If there is to be hope for humanity and even a small fraction of the planet’s other species to thrive in a healthy environment, then there must be a substantial change in focus by the media that can in part be initiated by journalism educators preparing students to understand that with freedom comes the responsibility to put the spotlight of the media on the significant threats and opportunities facing humankind. These journalism educators can find inspiration in MacLean’s writings and in Merrill’s 2001 book, “Twilight of Press Freedom,” in which he looks to the future of journalism: “The press in the 21st century will have reached the point where it recognizes that its basic role is to serve the public.”


Altschull, J. H. (1990). From Milton to McLuhan: The Ideas Behind American Journalism. New York: Longman.

Campbell, Roth. (2005, March 23). Minnesota university system's policy–prohibiting officials from intervening in newspaper content–shielded school. Student Press Law Center.

Diggs, A. (2005, January 25). (Interview).

Gitlow v. People of State of New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925).

Guy, T. (2005, January 8). (Interview).

Hosty v. Carter, 7th Cir. (2005).

Jefferson, T. (1787, January 16). Letter to Edward Carrington. Papers 11:48-49.

Living Planet Report. (2004). World Wildlife Fund.

MacLean, M. S. Sr. & Lee, E. A. (1956). Change and Process in Education. New York: Dryden.

MacLean, M. S. (1967). “Position Paper for the Ad Hoc Committee on Media Evaluation.” Prepared for the Association for Education in Journalism, University of Iowa School of Journalism.

MacLean, M. S. (1968, May 8-11). “On the Education of Responsible Newsmen.” 23rd Annual Conference, American Association for Public Opinion Research, Santa Barbara, California.

MacLean, M. S. (1970, April). “Journalism Education at the University of Iowa.” Presentation to alumni of the University of Iowa School of Journalism, New York City.

McGauley, J. (1989, October 31). Ventilation problems more severe than those at IU. The Ball State Daily News, p.1.

McGauley, J. (1989, November 1). Ventilation fumes in Cooper possibly carcinogenic. The Ball State Daily News, p.1.

McGauley, J. (1989, November 7). Officials unsure of chemical impact on health. The Ball State Daily News, p.1.

McGauley, J. (1990, January 29). Funding OK’d for Cooper, parking garage repairs. The Ball State Daily News, p.1.

Merrill, J. C. (1974). The Imperative of Freedom. New York: Hastings House.

Merrill, J. C. (1977). Existential Journalism. New York: Hastings House.

Merrill, J. C. (1989). The Dialectic in Journalism. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Merrill, J. C. (2001). Twilight of Press Freedom. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Mill, J. S. (1859). On Liberty. Indianapolis: ITT Bobbs-Merrill.

Milliner v. Turner, 436 So. 2d 1300 La. App. (1983).

New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).

Pearson, K. (2005, January 14). (Interview).

Protess, D. & Warden, R. (1998). A Promise of Justice. New York: Hyperion.

Postman, N. (1985). Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin.

Shelton, M. (2001, November 21). Is there a fungus among us? Viewpoints, p.6.

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*Thanks to state Senator Yee, college student journalists in California are now free from prior restraint. AB 2581, the California law that protects college students' press freedom, took effect January 1, 2007:





INTRODUCED BY Assembly Members Yee and Nation

FEBRUARY 24, 2006

An act to amend Section 66301 of the Education Code, relating to postsecondary education.


AB 2581, Yee Postsecondary education: student conduct.
Existing law prohibits the Regents of the University of
California, upon their adoption of a specified resolution, and the Trustees of the California State University and the governing board of a community college district, from making or enforcing any rule
subjecting a student to disciplinary sanction solely on the basis of conduct that is speech or other communication that, when engaged in outside a campus is protected from governmental restriction by specified provisions of the California Constitution or the United States Constitution. Existing law provides that nothing in this provision shall be construed to authorize any prior restraint of student speech.
This bill would additionally prohibit any administrator of any campus of those institutions from making or enforcing any rule subjecting a student to disciplinary sanction solely on the basis of conduct that is speech or other communication that, when engaged in outside a campus, is protected from governmental restriction by
specified provisions of the California Constitution or the United States Constitution. The bill would also prohibit its provisions from being construed to authorize any prior restraint of the student press.


SECTION 1. Section 66301 of the Education Code is amended to read:

66301. (a) Neither the Regents of the University of California, the Trustees of the California State University, the governing board of any community college district, nor any administrator of any campus of those institutions, shall make or enforce any rule
subjecting any student to disciplinary sanction solely on the basis of conduct that is speech or other communication that, when engaged in outside a campus of those institutions, is protected from governmental restriction by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution or Section 2 of Article 1 of the California
(b) Any student enrolled in an institution, as specified in subdivision (a), that has made or enforced any rule in violation of subdivision (a) may commence a civil action to obtain appropriate injunctive and declaratory relief as determined by the court. Upon a motion, a court may award attorney's fees to a prevailing plaintiff
in a civil action pursuant to this section.
(c) Nothing in this section shall be construed to authorize any prior restraint of student speech or the student press.
(d) Nothing in this section prohibits the imposition of discipline for harassment, threats, or intimidation, unless constitutionally protected.
(e) Nothing in this section prohibits an institution from adopting rules and regulations that are designed to prevent hate violence, as defined in subdivision (a) of Section 4 of Chapter 1363 of the Statutes of 1992, from being directed at students in a manner that denies them their full participation in the educational process, if
the rules and regulations conform to standards established by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and Section 2 of Article 1 of the California Constitution for citizens generally.