Gagging Student Reporters: A New Low in Florida

One of my first lessons in the power of large institutions to pressure individuals was as a student journalist at the University of Pennsylvania.

In 1991, I was the “crime beat reporter” for The Daily Pennsylvanian, the independent student newspaper which was funded entirely through advertisements and received no University funding. We were entirely student run, and liked it that way. Wharton students ran the business operations.

That fall semester I wrote so many articles – because crime in West Philadelphia was so high at that point – that I had more articles – more than 70 – than there were issues.

The big story in late October was the discovery and return, after three years, of an Egyptian artifact that had been stolen from the university's museum. Someone else had written the story about the return of the piece, but my editor, Patrick O'Donnell who now writes for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, sent me to see I could get a “color” story about how university workers felt about the return of this piece.

As I was walking through the museum and talking to folks, one security guard struck up a conversation with me and told me, essentially, that security was so bad at the museum that it would've been just as easy in 1991 to steal from the collection as it was in 1988 when the artifact went missing.

Although badly formatted for the web now, my article ran on the front on the front page and is still available.

Unlike my colleague Stephen Glass, I didn't fabricate anything about that article (or any other article, for that matter). After interviewing the security guard, who gave me his name, but asked to remain anonymous for purposes of the article I wrote, I hopped on my bike and road back to the DP's offices near 40th and Walnut.

I then called the museum for a comment. I quickly got a response from a senior person in PR who tried to pressure me into revealing the name of the security guard. I was then told that if I wanted a comment, I should come down to the museum that evening – now it was dark – and meet the head of security. I did so, and was ushered through some of the darkened halls of the museum to meet with the director of the museum, who again tried to get me to divulge my source.

We ran the story. I never did reveal the source.

A couple of days later, I got a call on my home phone from the security guard who thanked me for not revealing who he was. He told me that officials at the museum were out to get the leak, and that he was afraid that his job was on the line. I promised him I would never tell anyone who he was.

But I did not forget that lesson: institutions like to protect themselves, whether they are political or educational, non-profit or law enforcement.

The Bullying Continues

I experienced a couple of other episodes of bullying by administrators or interest groups who didn't want this or that story to run during my time at the DP. Which is why this story from Florida is interesting to me.

A student reporter for the Pensacola State College newspaper interviewed some faculty members and wrote a story recently about contract negotiations between the college and the faculty union.

Pensacola State College was not pleased. But, rather than respect the First Amendment, and express their displeasure by commenting in an article, or writing a letter to the editor, they have had their lawyers send a bumptious legal letter to faculty, citing a state code that has been ruled unconstituional, to try to prevent further reporting about the contract negotiations.

If students want to read about the labor dispute, [college president Ed] Meadows said, they can read about it in the local newspaper. But he noted that the local paper didn’t pick up a story about the impasse. “If the local media doesn’t find it of interest, then why would students find it of interest, and of what benefit would it be for students to know?”

If that's the new standard in this country for how the First Amendment is applied – whether the issue is boring or not – then we have sunk to a new low.

So here's to the student reporters at the PSC Corsair. I hope they keep up the reporting about whatever issues they find interesting and merit coverage.

 

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Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.