Administrators at the Catonsville campus of the Community College of Baltimore County briefly blocked distribution of the most recent edition of the student newspaper, which featured an editorial critical of their hiring practices.
A college official denied that the action was an attempt to censor the student publication, Red and Black. But the editor of the monthly newspaper says basic press freedoms were impinged.
"This newspaper doesn't belong to the administration. It belongs to the students," said David Morey, editor in chief. "Pressure like this from an administration breaks a barrier of trust. It's absolutely unconscionable."
Copies of the April 9 issue contain an editorial written by Morey that criticizes the recent hiring of a vice chancellor and a dean during the state budget crisis.
About 1,000 copies of the newspaper arrived on the Catonsville campus Wednesday afternoon, as scheduled, Morey said. But instead of being distributed in the student activities building, Peter Law, director of student life, said he held the issue in his office for a day so that the newspaper could be "fact-checked."
"There's never been any censorship of the student newspaper," said Law. "It was really done to make sure facts were correct."
Although Law wouldn't say whether the article that needed review was Morey's editorial, he said he might have asked staff members to rewrite an article or contact a person commented on if facts were found to be inaccurate.
Morey, 29, who is scheduled to graduate in May with an associate's degree in art and science, said the staff worked hard to have the publication available to students Wednesday. The papers were made available late Thursday, when many students were leaving for spring break.
In the editorial titled, "Can They Read?" -- a reference to Chancellor Irving Pressley McPhail's master's degree in reading from Harvard -- Morey wrote, "I'm thinking that maybe hiring new people when you can't pay the old ones is a bad idea."
"Criticize the administration, fail to offer support, or say, object to the elimination of the last academic dean on an entire campus, and you might face disciplinary action. Or maybe they just won't sign your next contract. I'm hoping they won't renew mine," Morey wrote.
The editorial was a follow-up to Morey's December editorial "Too Many Chiefs," which characterized the college administration as "top heavy."
"We knew that it would not be well-received because the dean over student life gets very upset if anything negative is said about the chancellor, ditto for the president of the campus," said Virginia T. Pond, a retired English and journalism professor and former faculty adviser for Red and Black. "But David felt strongly these things needed be said."
Such incidents are relatively rare, said one expert on student publications.
"Law on public colleges and universities is crystal clear. Public school administrators cannot interfere with student publications," said Mike Hiestand, an attorney with the Arlington, Va.-based Student Press Law Center.
"What this administrator did was clearly illegal. He apparently skipped his First Amendment primer," he said.
"Unless higher-up administrators make a clear statement that this will never, ever happen again," Hiestand said, the student journalists may want to seek a court order to prevent such interference.