Online Update‘It’s very clear that a college does not have the authority to confiscate papers because they object to the stories.’

In the July 6 edition of the Pasadena Weekly, staff writer Carl Kozlowkski reports on the removal of hundreds of copies of El Vaquero and the rights of student journalists.

After learning of the suicides of two nursing department students, the Glendale Community College’s campus newspaper El Vaquero ran a story on the deaths and the various resources the college offers for students contemplating the same fate.

But once the papers hit the distribution racks, hundreds of copies were removed on two separate occasions, leaving the paper’s editor, the article’s author and a faculty adviser wondering if the school administration was trying to quash their First Amendment rights.

The incidents have begun to draw national attention, fueling a debate over whether colleges and universities have the right to control what topics are discussed in their student publications. And coming amid a period in which even the professional, mainstream media are often at odds with the White House over their coverage of the war in Iraq, the attitude of just-retired GCC Superintendent John Davitt and other like-minded administrators bodes ill for the present and future rights of student journalists.

“Whoever’s responsible for this is definitely going against the tide in which free expression should be displayed on campus,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of the Washington, DC-based advocacy group Student Press Law Center, which has kept records of campus censorship and offered legal advice to student journalists and faculty advisers since 1974. “This kind of problem is definitely getting worse, because we hear from between 2,000 to 3,000 students or advisers a year who are experiencing problems with their publications. On an anecdotal level, more college editors are being threatened or censored by school administrators who don’t like what they publish.”

The GCC controversy began with an article by Pauline Guiuan, which was published June 9 in El Vaquero. Guiuan noted on the fact that suicides are believed to be the second-leading cause of death for high school and college students as nearly 5,000 people between the ages of 15 to 25 take their own lives annually.

While her story focused on campus mental health resources for students, it mentioned by name 22-year-old nursing student Raya Belchava, who committed suicide in November, just weeks before her scheduled graduation. By the day after the papers were distributed, nearly 1,000 copies disappeared from the racks and when they were replaced by an El Vaquero staff member, the new copies went missing again.

The faculty adviser for El Vaquero, Michael Moreau, believes that the removals were ordered by Davitt.

Moreau said that he was pressured to take the article off the newspaper’s Web site, a decision he said he now deeply regrets. It has since been reposted to the paper’s Web site,

“It’s very clear that a college does not have the authority to confiscate papers because they object to the stories. The college administration has a right to publicly express disagreement with the student newspaper, but does not have the right to shut it down,” said Goodman.

“One of the things that we have urged college editors to do is to challenge these actions and demand some response from the college administration,” Goodman said. “The college is even open to a lawsuit in this case, because if they did remove the newspapers, it was an inappropriate and wasteful use of tax money and therefore a disservice to the community at large.”