Kids with grownups' Rights

December 16, 1990|By Ernest B. Furgurson

WASHINGTON — Washington.--TEN DAYS AGO, the George Washington University student newspaper, The Hatchet, splashed a story about how a woman student had been raped repeatedly by two black assailants on campus Hallowe'en night. This week, the Hatchet ran a bigger spread confessing that the story was based on a student's untrue assertions.

Earlier this semester, The Miami Student, at Miami University of Ohio, published an editorial cartoon that included black students picking cotton. The paper's editor had the good sense to apologize.

At New York City College, the student newspaper The Campus printed an opinion article about how a ''cunning Jewish clique'' was running things. The president of the school called the piece ''blatant anti-Semitism.'' The responsible editor, who is black, refused to apologize.

At Dartmouth, the independent student newspaper Dartmouth Review printed an anti-Semitic quotation from Hitler's ''Mein Kampf'' as part of its masthead. The editor said it was ''sabotage'' and apologized for it, but not for the paper's ongoing policy of sub-sophomoric bigotry.

Is all this permissible under the First Amendment? Should college, even high school papers enjoy the same press freedom as The Sun and other grown-up publications?

I must confess my own interest in the question. As a high school sportswriter, I campaigned for somebody to fix our left-field fence and smooth the infield, and succeeded. But that went to my head. My career as a college columnist ended promptly when I wrote about how our little Baptist junior college should spend a recent bequest on certain facilities that badly needed fixing.

The president of the college chewed me out for ''washing dirty linen in public'' and booted me from the paper. I filed no lawsuit, offered no argument. It never occurred to me at 18 that I had any rights in the matter. Today, whether students do or don't is an issue that embroils them, faculty, lawyers and even the Supreme Court.

While neither of my personal instances ever became a case, they illustrate one element of the legal argument -- the difference between public and private schools. There is no simple answer that covers the four colleges cited in the beginning:

While the George Washington Hatchet is an official student paper, GW is a private university. Miami of Ohio and CCNY are both public. Not only is Dartmouth private, but the Review there is unofficial and privately sponsored.

The first response of many professionals is the old truism that ''freedom of the press belongs to the man who owns one.'' Student editors don't own their high school and college papers, any more than I own The Sun. What I write as a columnist is strictly my own, but reporters' work is regularly edited and occasionally second-guessed.

If professionals are answerable to editors and publishers, why should students be autonomous? If those students aspire to become professionals, why shouldn't they learn how things work in the real world?

Some scholars, and that eloquent exponent of the First Amendment, Nat Hentoff, hang their answer on whether the school is private or public.

They say private school administrators are entitled to decide what their official student papers print -- though obviously they .. have no direct say over independent off-campus papers. However, any editing or restraint by public school officials is censorship, because it is government control.

Anyone who worships the Bill of Rights cannot deny this reasoning. But in accepting it I may sound like those press critics who only reluctantly swallow the First Amendment: ''Freedom of the press demands responsibility by the press.''

Certainly it does, though responsibility cannot be ordained by the government. Exercising it produces arguments in newspaper offices every day. But in this country in 1990, every respectable professional agrees that responsibility forbids phony stories and outright racism.

It covers more hypothetical situations than I could possibly list. It can and should be taught, but it is mainly a matter of judgment, learned day by day. Only by experience do we come to realize NTC how inseparable freedom and responsibility must be.

An editor is free to run a wild story about campus rape, but responsibility says check it, back and forth and sideways. A contributor is free to make racist allegations, but a responsible editor is not obliged to print them. Teachers or administrators are free to insist on only positive, uncritical stories and editorials, but they have a duty to responsibility, too.

High school, college, the first day a student sits at a keyboard is time to start learning the full meaning of the first sentence of the Bill of Rights.

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