A columnist at The Meter, the student newspaper at Tennessee State University, published an opinion piece criticizing the college president for being unaccessible and hypocritical. The writer, Alan C. Beard, referred to him as Daffy Duck.
In his tirade, Beard pleaded for funding and equipment for the student newspaper and other programs. He asserted that the improvements would make the students more competitive in the job market.
Beard suspected his candid assessment would raise the ire of TSU administrators. He prophesied they would censor the newspaper by withdrawing funds, and alerted the readers.
However, the administration chose another route. The college president, James A. Hefner, expressed displeasure with the piece, and the adviser’s department chair ordered her to proofread the newspaper and to censor any expression that might be questionable.
That order by the department chair is in direct violation of the students’ first amendment rights. The adviser cannot be a tool of the administration to suppress student expression. Her supervisor should not have issued that directive and the adviser should not have felt compelled to comply.
The courts have ruled on similar situations. In every instance, the judges have upheld the students’ right to publish. That means to publish what they want even if the writer makes fashion suggestions for the university president.
Beard revealed that Hefner plans “to encourage us not to wear do-rags” because they “reflect poorly on the school.” He countered by admonishing Hefner to “take off those thick glasses or tight suits because they don’t reflect well on this university either.”
Student publication literature makes it clear that the adviser’s role is to teach, train, guide and defend the staff’s right to make the final decision.
It is a precarious position for the adviser. She must be an advocate for the students and must worry about job security when things go awry. She is a part of the organization, but she is not the editorial decision-maker. She cannot be an adviser/censor. That is an oxymoron. Her role is to foster an understanding of student press rights among the university community.
But advisers do have protection. In Antonelli vs . Hammond, the editor of a Massachusetts student newspaper published some objectionable words and used “street language.” The court ruled that prior review of copy was “an unconstitutional exercise of state power.”
To me, this case is no different from the Tennessee State case. Beard used the lingo known to students. Yes, he could have been more professional in his criticism. But expression should not be judged for its usefulness or likability. I am sure this whole episode has been a learning experience for all parties, especially the students. And educating students is our business.
Valerie White, Ph.D., is the adviser for The Famuan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.