You can’t save face by censoring others

When I took over as editor of the Daily Egyptian in the summer of 2011, I could not have imagined the First Amendment lessons that lay ahead – the university’s stonewalling DE reporters, its refusal to turn over the memo detailing the new media access “policy,” the strike called by tenured professors to protect academic freedom or the university shutting down a Facebook page because of comments critical of the university.

The fall of 2011 was a delicate time on campus with budget problems, labor troubles and a declining enrollment that had propelled a new campaign to rebrand the university. During this difficult period, the chancellor seemed more intent on remaking the image of the university than reaching out to the campus community. At least that’s how it appeared to the public.

The week before the semester started, the Daily Egyptian found on-campus sources reluctant, sometimes even afraid, to talk with journalists. Rather than having the freedom to contact university officials, reporters found that officials directed them to the university spokesman with frequent attempts.

The first incident occurred when a new reporter was in the midst of an interview with the director of Plant and Service Operations. He changed the interview’s status to “off the record.” The director understood the paper’s importance to the community and he had the reputation of providing journalists with complete information. When the reporter questioned his change of heart, one of his responses was, “I used to be able to say a lot more.” He explained he was to direct all media to the university spokesman. He said the objective was for those at the university to have “a unified voice,” and then asked her to confirm the information he provided with the spokesman before putting it in the paper.

The Daily Egyptian is independent of the university, and although it is housed on university property, it is a public forum. University officials cannot censor us. It is not a public relations tool. The paper circulates 20,000 copies a day, five days a week, and half of them are distributed off campus. Its role in the community is important, and many rely on it daily as their only source for local news.

The DE is a place for journalism students to exercise their skills and pick up new ones. It’s a place to get ready for any career that may lie ahead after SIUC. Many say it’s an experience to prepare students for the real world, but what they don’t realize is the DE is the real world.

Our staff had never faced a situation where top officials were refusing public comment. The staff decided that if the incident were to occur in the future, reporters would not agree to prior review. The university’s attempts to channel information through one source followed a pattern that showed more concern about its public image than what was actually happening on campus.

However, what the university didn’t seem to understand was that multiple sources are what create a news story. The purpose of a newspaper is to inform readers on events through facts from multiple perspectives. Often, the more perspectives in a story, the more truth it has.

When those at the Daily Egyptian asked SIUC spokesman Rod Sievers about the new policy, he denied its existence. He instead insisted it was the choice of individual staff to send us to him, and what a coincidence it was that they all did it at the same time.

The “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to talk to Rod Sievers,” game got old fast for DE reporters, and a paragraph dedicated to those who refused comment was a recurring theme of news stories. By the first paper of the semester, reporters had encountered the same response from nearly all administrators on campus. Some went so far as to require a list of questions ahead of time before they would even commit to an interview.

The DE filed a Freedom of Information Act request Aug. 26  to obtain emails between Sievers and Chancellor Rita Cheng about the new policy. When the letters arrived, there was minimal content included about media relations, let alone a policy. There was content removed, however, so the DE sent an appeal to the Illinois attorney general’s office and waited.

Students struggled to even get a minimal three-source story. Balance was difficult and stories were shallow. The greatest frustration of all of it, however, was the inability to tell readers what was happening behind the scenes. Reporters kept trying to contact sources to the best of their ability, and the university spokesman continued to insist there was no policy.

A week after the FOIA request was filed, there was a power outage late Sept. 14 on campus, and an approximate 2,000-student disturbance occurred outside two SIU residence halls. Daily Egyptian staff members arrived at the scene to find city and campus police swarming the premises, while State Police stood on the sidelines dressed in riot gear. A reporter was shoved by an officer who was herding students back into the buildings. Vulgar chants could be heard from a distance, car windows were busted out and two students were sent to the hospital with minor injuries. When the Daily Egyptian called the SIU Department of Public Safety, he referred us to Sievers.

Sievers claimed no riot had occurred, but more of a student disturbance.

The chancellor sent an email the next day to SIU students, parents and faculty that reiterated what the university spokesman had said. She assured parents that although police were called to the scene as precautionary action, at no time was the situation out of control.

“In addition, students who are found to have violated campus policy or were involved in inappropriate behavior last night will be subject to discipline through the Office of Student Rights and Responsibilities,” she said in the email.

Again, the university found it more important to protect its reputation than to be open and honest. Transparency about serious issues is more likely to improve the university’s reputation than pretending they don’t exist.

The day following the disturbance, the DE’s front page contradicted Cheng’s statements with photos of police in riot gear, a student with blood on their face and mobs of people chanting. The administration never followed up and instead the incident marked the beginning of a recurring pattern.

As mid-semester rolled around, contract issues between four SIUC unions and the university administration resulted in the first faculty strike in SIU history, with the union of tenured and tenure-track professors walking off the job. There were several incidents that led up to that point, and until the final minutes, faculty insisted that the most important issue was a lack of trust between faculty and administration. Those in the unions said they had been without contracts for months, and in an economy where state funding wasn’t ensured and the university itself was in a hiring freeze, no job was secure. Faculty worried the administration just wanted the power to lay off anyone.

On top of that, faculty members were uncomfortable with the administration’s actions and attitudes toward its employees in the past and feared their own free expression rights were not protected when they were not under contract.

The Faculty Association — a union consisting of tenured and tenure-track faculty — went on strike Nov. 3, leaving some classes without professors and most in a state of confusion. In the hours surrounding the start of the strike, several students posted strike-related comments on the university’s Facebook wall. During the course of several hours, students began to notice a multitude of comments deleted from the page, many of which were pro-union or simply asked why a settlement could not be reached.

Students were outraged and complained of censorship and discrimination. For an institution of higher education, the actions taken were deceitful at best and outright hypocritical at worst. The issue of the First Amendment arose when many questioned whether the university’s Facebook page was a university organ or a public forum. Private institutions have control over postings from third parties, but SIU is a public university, therefore the First Amendment prohibits it from discriminating against particular viewpoints.

Rather than simply commenting back, the university wrote off the comments without any explanation. The consensus was that if you didn’t agree with the administration, your opinions didn’t matter. For an institution that thrives because of its students, the idea that those who are in positions of authority aren’t appreciative is somewhat defeating. When the administration was asked who deleted the comments, the chancellor and spokesman said it was an employee in the office of admissions who became overwhelmed with negative comments, and therefore chose to delete them.

I’ve spent a great amount of time in SIU courses during my three years where I’ve been taught to act exactly the opposite of the administration. I’ve been taught to challenge authority and fight for what I believe in. My professors have instilled in me that everyone has the ability to make a difference. Isn’t that what college is about? Isn’t it supposed to be a time where students should be curious, question society and become educated enough to act confidently and capably? They should never stand back for fear of the outcome. They should instill confidence in students’ ability to think critically, not hinder their ability to do so. They should be our role models, not our adversary.

Through its restrictive press access policy and Facebook censorship, the administration reinforced the perception that SIU isn’t always a student friendly place. The effect on Daily Egyptian reporters varied. Some became more hesitant in questioning authority, while others became more motivated to express their sense of wonder.

As the semester wound down, the Illinois attorney general ordered the university to release a document it had withheld from the DE’s FOIA request.  The document showed that there was a policy outlined by the chancellor in July that required administrators to direct media to the university spokesman for comment. Her exact words were: “We cannot have the DE kids shopping for responses. Please remind them all to go through you to coordinate official responses.”

Not only did this response show that the spokesman lied, but affirmed that personal opinion clouded their administrative responsibilities and decorum when dealing with some of the university’s most active students. The spokesman denied the mere idea of a policy not only to DE reporters, but was dishonest about the issue with faculty.

He said the changes did not amount to a policy because it had not been approved by the Board of Trustees and posted on the website. Webster-Merriam defines a policy as, “a definite course or method of action selected from among alternatives and in light of given conditions to guide and determine present and future decisions.”

It’s simply a shame that administrators put energy into fighting against something that is a positive accessory to the university as a whole.

Looking back at it, the university’s attempts to limit expression by restricting those who spoke to the student newspaper and on Facebook appeared to have the opposite of the intended effect. Instead of buffing the university’s brand, the actions left some students and faculty feeling as though university officials were antagonistic to the central mission of every university — fostering the exchange of differing ideas in a search for the truth.

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