HSU administration cannot tell student media what to publish
Press at any capacity in the United States is protected by the First Amendment against federal censorship of speech. The government cannot make editorial decisions, retractions or content suggestions. Student press publications in California are protected not just by the First Amendment, but also by the California Student Free Expression Law of 1977, or California Education Code 48907.
When a government entity such as a state university interferes with the press by policing publications on what is appropriate to publish, it inhibits the independence of the press.
Recently, Humboldt State University administration sent out a school-wide email regarding material printed in a student parody newspaper, called The Dumberjack, found in an insert in the Nov. 20 issue of The Lumberjack.
The public announcement accused the students in the parody news class that produced The Dumberjack of reinforcing rape culture and gender-based discrimination through a photo that depicted a “sexist ‘riddle’” which was displayed on a sign in a window of an all-female room at the College Creek Apartments.
The school administration held The Dumberjack staff responsible for a joke on a sign they did not create nor stage. A student-journalist outside of the parody news class observed and documented campus culture with this photograph. The parody news class simply featured it in the paper and in no way amplified any perceived gender-based discrimination with the story that ran alongside the photo.
No one in The Dumberjack class or on The Lumberjack staff supports gender-based discrimination or wants to reinforce rape culture. But journalism, of any kind, is not public relations. The publication of a photo of a sign on campus does not represent endorsement of what the sign says. Journalism draws attention to troublesome realities by documenting them and showing them to the public. When a publication reveals a sign that a university finds offensive, the university’s focus ought to be on the sign, not on the journalists who documented it.
Administration officials invited the class to have a conversation to “discuss the impact and implications of the cover photo.” The meeting was intended to be an open dialogue surrounding the development of “critical lenses.”
Instead, on Thursday, Dec. 5, the class became the site of a direct act of administration intimidation.
Two school officials—only one of whom had been momentarily invited—came to the class and lectured journalism students on how to make editorial decisions. Chair of the Sexual Assault Prevention Committee Kim Berry and Dean of Students Eboni Turnbow, both of whom are government employees, reprimanded a class of students educated in journalism ethics.
The administration is demonstrating unprofessional behavior of questionable legality by attempting to contain this incident and filter what student press can and cannot print. The administration cannot tell student media what to publish.
Parody writers take real world situations and use a critical lens to highlight a topic in a juxtaposed way. These satirical pieces can sometimes be offensive, but the key is that the subject matter is still being discussed.
The goal of parody is to create a dialogue on topics that are either overshadowed or too controversial to be discussed openly. Parody facilitates the palatability of relevant information through comedy.
The First Amendment protects speech, including satire and parody. Satire and parody are used as impressionistic language that aim to create commentary on sensitive issues through the use of humor, absurdity and exaggeration. Utilizing these writing tactics serves as a more approachable way of tackling uncomfortable yet prominent issues.
Journalists aim to relay information in the most accurate and concise manner as possible. Censorship defeats that purpose. The government censoring the media is illegal and obstructs the transparency of journalism. It creates bias and subjectivity, as journalists become fearful of backlash for what they print.
When censorship appeases a specific group of people, it’s a domino effect. Censoring one thing for a single group leads to censoring all material to please everyone. That defeats the purpose of journalism as an independent eye intended to expose overlooked issues.
In today’s political climate, journalists are constantly under fire. The fourth estate, journalism, is as vital to uphold as the fifth estate, non-traditional media like parody news. When federal figures undermine the editorial freedom of a publication, even a parody news publication, a slippery slope follows in which government infringes upon the freedom of the press.