After The Highlander published an article on Nov. 30 detailing a lawsuit a UCR professor was facing, the editor-in-chief, managing editor and news editor of this student-run newspaper were suddenly met with a barrage of emails from UCR faculty and department leaders. Like any other publication, we are no strangers to criticism, but these emails and letters felt never-ending. Every time we received an email or letter from a faculty or a UCR department leader,, we would receive another email before we even had a moment to respond to the previous one. These emails and letters demanded that the article be retracted because it was “defamatory” while disparaging our ethics as a newspaper, our skill and our integrity. It was incredibly stressful. Like many other students, we were forced to balance taking finals online and work in-person at our essential jobs while managing the daily work of The Highlander. Not only were we in the middle of a global pandemic that was worsening, we were managing a multitude of harassing emails during finals week.
In an attempt to clarify and accurately respond to the complaints, The Highlander consulted with campus faculty, professional journalists and university lawyers who uniformly concluded that there was no legal basis to the claims that the article was defamatory. The Highlander has been independently serving UCR since 1954, and we have routinely brought light to topics on campus regarding lawsuits, budgetary concerns, faculty and administration. Our mission statement remains clear, “[We are] committed to the pursuit of truth, the free exchange of information and ideas and maintaining a fair and independent student voice.”
In addition, college newspapers at large are protected under the Constitution’s First Amendment. Under California’s Fair and True Reporting Privilege (Civ. Code, § 47(d)), publications that report on public proceedings and official documents are protected from claims that those reports are defamatory, as long as it is reported fairly and accurately. In the case Navi vs. UC Regents, the court agreed that there is no valid legal claim for defamation by omission, an issue addressed by Paterno v. Superior Court, 163 Cal.App.4th 1342, 1352 (2008) which states, “Media defendants are liable for calculated falsehoods, not for their failure to achieve some undefined level of objectivity.”
The Nov. 30 article was published with care. Several sources were contacted for information. Both parties were interviewed, but neither was allowed to comment; therefore, the article was based off of the lawsuit, with the assurance that there would be a follow-up and an in-depth text written for both the plaintiff and respondent. After conferring with outside resources and doing this research, we knew we were legally protected under freedom of the press laws, but we still feared the implications that these complaints could have on our relationship with our sources and on our personal relationships with professors — the people responsible for educating us.
We responded to the first complaints quickly and thoughtfully, including this information in our email, but continued to receive deprecating emails from faculty and UCR department leaders that dismissed our response. We were told that further contact would be rescinded unless we retracted the article. For faculty to threaten the quintessential relationship between a college newspaper and a university member, or for our publication to simply retract an article for fear of retaliation, goes against our First Amendment rights as journalists.
To receive messages that were harassing, threatening and bullying in nature from faculty and administrators is reprehensible. What is even more reprehensible is that through their harassment, intimidation and threats, these faculty and administrators contributed and fostered a culture of fear for student journalists on UCR’s campus. The faculty members who were sending harassing emails to The Highlander included professors whose classes we were currently enrolled in. Not only were we receiving this harassment during finals week, but members of The Highlander’s staff now feared that the personal bias these professors had for us could impact our grades.
These professors and administrators have power over our grades and the future of our education; student journalists should not be afraid of retaliation or intimidated from contacting them. The culture of fear these faculty members and department leaders fostered was so strong that members of The Highlander feared that we would face bias in future classes if a controversial article featured a situation with any member of faculty or administration.
The relationship between campus officials and student journalists is bound to be adversarial at times, and at many institutions, the act of censorship is completely in the hands of their administration. A 2016 study by the American Association of Student Professors (AAUP) found that student news publications are often subject to threats of censorship and intimidation from administrators, such as budget cuts or even the firing of their faculty advisors. The report cites the case of the University of Redlands, who stripped their student newspaper of funding after an article included critical comments of a major donor. The report notes that this type of censorship “imposes a chill on the independence of journalistic coverage that invariably will produce more timid journalism that ill serves the public interest.”
In a statement issued to The Highlander from the Director of News and Information John Warren and on the behalf of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Warren stated, “UCR strongly supports the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which protects free speech and press freedom, including for student news organizations and journalists. Free speech and freedom of the press is a foundation of our democracy. One of the tenets of freedom of the press is free and open dialogue, which includes the potential for public critique of an organization’s news coverage.” While it is paramount for UCR to support student journalism, it needs to go further than that. They need to offer student journalists concrete protections from faculty and department leaders who harass and threaten students. This culture of fear created is not fair to student journalists who are simply trying to inform the student body on issues relating to their campus — they should have no obligation to produce material based on the best interest of those in higher positions.
College newsrooms are supposed to be the place where the next generation of journalists is able to hone their skills; they should not be pummeled into submission by administrators to the extent that they are only comfortable publishing “timid journalism.” In an interview with The Highlander, Editor-in-Chief Sarah Harris and Managing Editor Amanda Bradford of the Daily Californian, the University of California (UC) Berkeley’s student newspaper, wrote that they have “always called our newspaper a training ground, so we can only hope faculty have empathy for us. Faculty and student newspapers serve their campuses — but are both bound to make mistakes or do something that not everyone is happy about. It happens, and standing by your reporting is necessary for a complete record and maintaining your own journalistic integrity.”
Bradford and Harris also wrote, “I think campus papers are in a tough position of wanting support and to be taken seriously, but also wanting community members to acknowledge that we’re still students.” As former students themselves, we expected these UCR members to have empathy toward us in these depressing circumstances, but we weren’t afforded any empathy or basic courtesy.
This intimidation is even more inappropriate when considering the demographic of UCR’s student body, and of The Highlander staff specifically. Fifty-seven percent of UCR students are first-generation students, and roughly 65% are people of color. The Highlander staff reflects those statistics; most of our staff is women of color, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college. It is imperative that professors and faculty consider that we do not have the privilege nor resources of a formal journalism program at UCR, nor do we have the privilege of having lifelong mentors. The Highlander is entirely student-run, with no faculty advisor or staff. If professors seek vindictive measures to reprimand student journalists for perceived offenses, the university must make it clear that they will support their reporting in order to foster a transparent partnership between student newspapers and the university.
The UC system should provide student journalists with more concrete guarantees of protection for what they write, assuming they do not maliciously attack and defame another individual. Journalism is not meant to play favorites, and if a story unearths information that could be troubling or offensive, journalists should not be afraid of any repercussions the article may result in. The UC must make such protections clear and regularly reaffirm its dedication to protecting and siding with student journalism. Faculty should be treating student journalists with the same respect they would be expected to treat any students with, regardless of their position. If faculty is unhappy with an article, it is not in their right to censor it if it is truthful. To harass and/or bully student journalists is not only inappropriate for a faculty member, but is truly damaging in that it is undoubtedly meant to intimidate a subordinate individual to refrain from criticizing them in any way and ultimately silences the voice of students.