The Missouri School of Journalism’s news outlets are usually fighting for more free speech, not less.
But the Student Press Law Center is now accusing the Columbia Missourian of inhibiting students’ free speech and violating the First Amendment.
Wait… come again? Let’s Tarantino this sucker and take you to the beginning.
Last fall, J-School Buzz announced it was hiring new editors, which were named in December and got to work immediately. But we hit a snag a few weeks ago, when it came to our attention our new editor-in-chief could not work for JSB, because she was a Missourian staffer. As a result, she was forced to resign as JSB’s editor-in-chief.
That post quickly caught the Student Press Law Center’s attention, which published a blog post on its website saying the Missourian‘s conflict of interest policies violate the First Amendment.
As the Columbia Missourian‘s Editor-in-Chief, Tom Warhover, told me during a phone interview, “The SPLC’s claim certainly took me by surprise. The Columbia Missourian has been supporting the First Amendment for the last 103 years.”
Let’s dissect the SPLC’s argument saying that the Missourian has violated the First Amendment, perhaps the most serious accusation it could level against a news organization.
Even if the policy was ethically valid, the First Amendment doesn’t let state employees impose rules that restrict student speech on the basis of ethics. The First Amendment doesn’t have a loophole that permits state employees to restrict speech if that’s how private employers would do it, or if it’s useful or expedient to the purposes of the state.
Warhover’s central argument during our interview hit on this point. The Columbia Missourian is unlike other J-School newspapers in that the publication’s primary audience is not the student body, but rather the unaffiliated townspeople. It’s a professional paper, even though the reporters make no money, the reporters are students and the editors are J-School professors.
“The Missouri School of Journalism is based on students working as professionals,” Warhover said. And he’s right! The University of Missouri is different from other journalism schools because students in the Mizzou J-School’s affiliated newsrooms are supposed to act as if they are paid for the job (What?!) as professionals.
These conflict-of-interest policies are standard fare in the professional news industry, and as Warhover explained to me, “we based our newsroom standards off professional ones because we are a professional newspaper.”
But as the SPLC argues, expression of free speech can not be inhibited by a code of ethics, even the sacred Journalist’s Creed.
The SPLC’s Adam Goldstein, the man behind this post, also added on his post in the comments:
This is a policy restricting speech OUTSIDE OF THE CURRICULAR SETTING, not within the curricular setting. In other words, Missouri can probably set curricular reasons for restricting speech within a lab setting. But it can’t restrict speech OUTSIDE that lab setting on the basis of the existence of the lab setting. That’s just plain old un-American censorship, and it isn’t that complicated.
I didn’t press Warhover on this point, but he could have argued that the Missourian has no single “lab.” As soon as news breaks, Mizzou J-Schoolers are back in the lab making the phone calls and getting the story.
The SPLC’s argument focuses on that (brief) period of time between stories, when a Missouri J-Schooler is going about the rest of his or her life. During that time, it is a J-Schooler’s First Amendment right to say whatever they like wherever they like, according to the SPLC.
The SPLC also argued that any conflict-of-interest policy at the Missourian would be ridiculous because conflicts of interest are entirely unavoidable in that newsroom:
It’s hard to see how an organization edited by people who are full-time paid agents of the entity it most frequently covers, who also happens to be the biggest employer in town, could ever have a conflicts policy that isn’t a joke. I mean, how did the editorial meeting go when they created this policy at the Missourian? “Okay, now that everybody’s cashed their paycheck, NOW we’re going to be sticklers for journalism ethics.”
The idea that conflicts of interest in a town like Columbia, Missouri could ever be adhered to strictly is a point that College Media Matters hit on as well.
Conflicts of interest are often unavoidable in collegemediatopia. Some of the classics: the student working in the school’s PR office while wanting to report for the newspaper; the student joining a frat while wanting to write about an event that involves Greek organizations; the history major who finds herself editing a story involving a dust-up between history profs and the administration; and the student keeping an indy Tumblr blog while writing for the school magazine on similar issues.
Each potential conflict must be addressed on its merits. And while most policies and idealists have their hearts in the right place, the truth is always murkier and in need of wiggle room. Teeghman is correct in the overall implication that independent student media tend to get short shrift in conflict-of-interest fights when pitted against long-established, school-affiliated behemoths. But in this instance, I don’t personally see any Orwellian plot to keep J-School Buzz down.
We don’t see any Orwellian plot either. In fact, to be honest, if we had known Cohen was going to be on the Missourian‘s staff as well as editing JSB, we would have asked her to choose between them. Editing JSB is a full-time commitment, and it often involves pissing off people in the Missouri School of Journalism, including the Missourian.
The problem with the Missourian‘s conflict-of-interest policy is more about the fact that you can not contribute to other newsrooms in any capacity. A lot of content posted on this site has come from contributors who only published once or twice. Under the Missourian‘s COI policies, contributors are not allowed to post even once.
It would make more sense for the Missourian and the other newsrooms affiliated with Mizzou’s J-School to have a policy that allows J-Schoolers to contribute to other news organizations, but not allow them to be in the leadership of another publication.
That sort of policy would strike a reasonable balance between the need for preserving J-Schoolers’ free speech rights outside the newsroom, and protecting the integrity of the institution. Plus, it would allow for J-Schoolers to gain a wide variety of skills and learn to deal with different types of journalists.