For many journalists, their first clash with administrators happens in high school or college. The first investigative article I penned for my high school newspaper brought me face-to-face with a disapproving administration. Brimming with youthful idealism, I interviewed teachers, staff and students after some punk rockers were suspended for having the audacity to choose “unnatural” hair colors. I remember sitting in the vice principal's office—red-faced and teary—as she informed me that my first real journalistic effort would be reduced to a paragraph-long, pro-administration press release. That was 1995.
Fast-forward almost two decades and student journalists are still facing this disheartening situation. By now you've read all about the ham-handed censorship of the CNM Chronicle in response to its Sex Issue and the administration's rapid reversal of that decision. As a journalist (and former Chronicle editor), my jaw dropped when I heard the news. The digital media sea change, an increasingly ubiquitous culture of info-tainment and the resulting blurred separation between advertising and editorial departments continues to threaten the essential tenets of journalistic ethics. The endangered state of journalism in toto means that secondary and postsecondary publications and the opportunities they afford budding writers are more vital than ever.
When the dust settled, I reached out to three local media professionals to learn what they took away from the incident. When CNM shut down the paper, staffers sought advice from Gwyneth Doland. Over the years, Doland has worn many hats—author, journalist, editor and professor—and is now executive director of New Mexico Foundation for Open Government. She offered resources and advice to the staff during the crisis. Doland says the shut-down created an opportunity for community dialogue about the importance of the First Amendment and why the founding fathers believed that a free press is a cornerstone of democracy. “We should all be glad that newspapers make things uncomfortable for the administrations they cover, whether it's a student newspaper or the New York Times,” said Doland. “That's what we're here for: holding those in power accountable.”
Daily Lobo Editor-in-Chief Elizabeth Cleary took a bold stance against the censorship by halting print publication of UNM's student newspaper until jobs, infrastructure and the right to publish were restored at the Chronicle. Cleary says she can't be sure whether her actions influenced CNM's reversal, but she felt a responsibility to draw attention to the administrative debacle. While she faced vocal critics of her decision to stop the presses, she notes they were balanced out by support and praise. “I think the ultimate take-away was that if you know something isn't right, and that people in power are behaving poorly, don't be afraid to make noise. The Daily Lobo did, and, while we'll never know exactly how much we influenced CNM admin, the point is that the students at CNM have their paper back,” said Cleary.
The reinstated Chronicle staff plans to give voice to their readership's response to the issue, whether supportive or critical. It sparked controversy by tackling topics in sexuality, like gender and sexual orientation, abstinence, masturbation and BDSM. Approached in a matter-of-fact manner that didn’t sensationalize these subjects, the issue provided information and resources. It’s chilling to imagine this knowledge being confiscated from newsstands and even reportedly ripped from students’ hands by an institution of higher learning.
CNM’s initial indictment of the issue as raunchy and inappropriate and its patronizing attitude toward the paper’s journalists and editors doesn’t inspire confidence. When backlash to the draconian censorship became evident, they backpedaled and cited a flimsy legal technicality that could have been cleared up with one phone call. Chronicle Editor-in-Chief Jyllian Roach learned a lot from this experience. “Media backs media without question. ...” said Roach. “People still care deeply about their rights, and even though the first sex column was printed 115 years ago, it's still a touchy subject.”
Harkening back to the age of the mixtape, I’ve compiled a freedom of speech-centric playlist dedicated to CNM. Like journalism and literature, music has a long and storied history as a proving ground for freedom of expression. From Billie Holiday’s depiction of prostitution in “Love for Sale” to 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be, musicians and artists have fought many of our society’s censorship battles. When speech is censored anywhere, liberty is endangered everywhere, so enjoy this mix and never forget that protecting controversial and unpopular speech is vital to ensuring our collective right to express ourselves.
Listen to our freedom of speech mix at: bit.ly/alibifreedom