By Marisa Demarco
— Any journalist not outraged over CNM’s censorship of its student newspaper is in the wrong business.
Freedom of the press is protected in the United States Constitution, in Amendment One, the same that enshrines free speech. Journalism and the right to express ideas—even unpopular ones—have been fundamentally entwined for hundreds of years in this country.
Jyllian Roach, editor-in-chief of The Chronicle, says when the administration at Central New Mexico Community College began pulling papers out of the racks yesterday, she was astonished. “The administration of CNM and I have not always seen eye-to-eye on things,” she says. “But I always thought they treated the freedom of press and speech as sacrosanct. They just ripped that away.”
Chronicle staff began planning a sexuality issue months ago. Then word came that the Supreme Court would be hearing cases on Proposition 8 (a California ballot measure defining marriage as heterosexual) and the federal Defense of Marriage Act. The student journalists decided to publish their package this week.
It includes an eight-person roundtable discussion of what it’s like to live in Albuquerque as a lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual or straight person. There’s a piece on abstinence, and local statistics about virginity, pregnancy and STDs. The feature also explores the use and sanitation of sex toys.
The final feature page is about BDSM—an increasingly mainstream topic with the advent of 50 Shades of Grey. This article is intended to be informative and less romanticized than the popular novel, Roach says, breaking down the basics about terminology and safety. A listing of sexuality resources rounds out the issue. Read the whole thing. (It’s taking off like wildfire as news of the paper’s suspension spreads.)
“There are no expletives in this issue. There are no nude photos. It doesn’t take a tongue-in-cheek look at sex,” Roach says. “This issue was written entirely for educational purposes.”
She was called into the Dean of Students Office at about 2:30 p.m. yesterday, just hours after the issue hit stands, she says. She was informed that CNM was temporarily suspending the newspaper, and its staff would be relocated to other work-study positions. Shortly thereafter, she says, she got an email from a friend about representatives from the college yanking issues from the stands.
Decrying the content of a student publication is one thing. But for a college administration to rip papers from the racks is extreme censorship—and a bumbling violation of the First Amendment.
Roach learned her office would be locked down, but she could hold an emergency meeting. When she broke the news to her staff, “everyone scattered and tried to round up as many copies as possible.” The Chronicle usually prints 2,500 issues. The staff guesses they salvaged about 400 copies, and about 100 managed to circulate.
Brad Moore, CNM spokesperson, told the Albuquerque Journal that the sexuality issue is part of an ongoing “pattern of concern with the content.” Roach says she had run-ins with the administration over a series of articles about a history instructor who was fired.
The paper’s staff is paid with work-study money. The Chronicle also gets a portion of student fees, Roach tells me, and it raises its own revenue through advertising to cover printing costs.
Regardless of where the funding comes from, public colleges that allow students to serve as editors of school papers are limited in their ability to censor, according to the Student Press Law Center. Confiscating copies of publications has been prohibited by the courts, as is suspending editors or withdrawing financial support.
Roach is hoping CNM will sit down with the student journalists tomorrow, and that cooler heads will prevail. “By shutting down the paper, even for just a week, they’re silencing the student voice.”
A CNM statement indicates that a lack of journalism training and supervision prompted the college to suspend The Chronicle. Roach says staff members work hard to train themselves, and it has paid off. Just a few weeks ago, the paper earned a third-place award for Best in Show at the Associated Collegiate Press Journalism Conference. “A lot of people think we’re doing it right.”
CNM students, faculty and staff—along with other free speech supporters and fellow journos—should speak out in support of restoring The Chronicle. Independent media will only survive as long as there are people willing to stand up for it.
As the Supreme Court once said: “Students do not shed their constitutional rights … at the schoolhouse gate.”