Presses stopped for student newspaper

Morgan editor calls election delay illegal

March 17, 2000|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The staff of the Spokesman, Morgan State University's student newspaper, expected to make a trip to their printer yesterday morning and distribute their latest effort around campus, getting their stories about student government elections in the hands of voters going to the polls.

Instead, they found that school officials -- who said they feared those elections might be disrupted by the newspaper -- stopped the presses just as they were about to run off 3,000 copies of the twice-monthly paper.

"It was really dumb, that's the only way I can put it," said Kevin Howell, a sophomore from New Jersey who edits the Spokesman. "This is censorship, a violation of our rights, under the United States Constitution" and school regulations, he said.

But Vivian Ryan, coordinator of student activities, said that because the paper is supported by student fees, it must remain neutral in student elections.

"It's just like I can't wear a button supporting one of the candidates," said Ryan as she oversaw three voting machines in a high-rise dormitory, one of three polling places on campus. "I know if I was a candidate who had paid student fees and the paper endorsed someone else, I would be upset."

Howell said his first inkling of a problem was a Wednesday night telephone call from Julian Dash, the student government president, who wanted to see the issue before it went to press.

Howell said he told Dash it was none of his business.

Dash said he was acting within his rights. "It is not fair, it is outside the bounds of responsible, moral and ethical journalism, for the paper to prefer one candidate and put down another," he said. "This is a student fee-supported paper."

Dash said he did not stop the presses but made a call to the printers asking that the paper not be delivered to campus until 5 p.m. -- which he said was the scheduled arrival. Howell said delivery was expected earlier.

Howell was unsure whether the issue would ever be printed.

As it turned out, the paper's staff had decided not to make an endorsement for student government president. "We felt that neither of the candidates deserved it," said Howell.

Dash said if he had known that, nothing would have happened. "That was never communicated to me," he said.

Howell argued the paper should have been distributed, even if it did contain an endorsement. "It's our right to make one," he said, adding that there are no regulations against it.

Mike Hiestand, an attorney at the nonprofit Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va., agreed.

"It sounds as though they need some sort of First Amendment refresher course," he said.

The Spokesman staff spent yesterday trying to get out what they could of their paper, printing out its 18 pages from the office computers and taking them to photocopying machines. But several hours of work produced only 25 copies.

Howell went to a nearby copying shop, but he said it refused to print a larger order because of potential copyright problems.

Members of the Spokesman staff taped printouts of the pages about the election to a poster board and set themselves up on the bridge over Cold Spring Lane in front of the McKeldin Student Center, one of the polling places.

Using a megaphone, they told their tale of censorship. Small groups gathered to read the contraband articles, which turned out to be fairly straightforward profiles of the candidates and their positions.

Angel Lennon, a junior from Baltimore, stopped to read the poster.

She said the paper should have been published. "We are the student body, this is the student newspaper, we should be allowed to read what is in it," she said.

Howell said he called Student Press Law Center yesterday.

Hiestand said Morgan officials "absolutely" acted improperly in interfering with publication of the Spokesman.

"There's no question that they have acted unconstitutionally," he said.

"For over 30 years, courts have been very uniform in saying that student editors at public colleges and universities have the right to make all editorial decisions," he added. "School officials don't have any sort of authority to punish or censor or control editorial matter."

University control over the paper's finances is irrelevant, he said.

If university officials don't acknowledge that they were wrong, Hiestand said, the Spokesman could seek a court injunction forbidding similar interference in the future.

Sun staff writer Eric Siegel contributed to this article.

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