We all take the First Amendment right of freedom of the press for granted until we are faced with a challenge that affects us directly as was the staff of El Vaquero at the end of the spring semester.
The purpose of a newspaper is to inform. We at the El Vaquero take pride in being the eyes and ears for the students, faculty, staff and college community at large.
When we decided to publish an article on the subject of depression and how it can lead to suicide, we did it with the intention to raise awareness of a serious issue that, unfortunately, affects college students at an alarming rate.
“When Colleges Go on Suicide Watch,” an article published in Time Magazine on May 22, stated that suicides are the “second leading cause of death among college students, after motor-vehicle accidents.”
Our goal in publishing our article, “Student Suicides Cause Concern” in our last issue of the spring, June 9, was to stress to those suffering from depression, that they are not alone and there are places on campus where they can seek help. It was also our intention to illuminate the warning signs that can eventually lead to suicide.
Unfortunately, the message of our article was misunderstood.
On June 15, former editor-in-chief Jane Pojawa noticed that a large number of newspapers were missing from news racks. Our initial belief was that parents who attended the commencement ceremony on June 10, had taken several copies of the newspaper as a keepsake because we had listed the graduates in the paper.
On June 17, Pojawa received a phone call from faculty adviser Michael Moreau, who also noticed the sudden disappearance of newspapers.
Since Pojawa was not on campus, Moreau re-stocked the news racks on June 19, only to see the racks empty, yet again, the following day.
But the events that unfolded on June 19, shed some light as to what might have happened to the missing papers.
That same afternoon, Moreau was called into the office of former President John Davitt. When Moreau arrived to Davitt’s office, he was surprised to see Cynthia Dorroh, head of the nursing program, who was also there to see Davitt.
According to Moreau, Davitt and Dorroh confronted him in regards to the newspaper and specifically the suicide story.
Davitt and Dorroh were concerned that the article was damaging to the school and to the nursing program. They went on to tell Moreau that he was wrong to allow the El Vaquero staff to publish the article.
Moreau went on to explain to Davitt that it was not his role to approve or disapprove of articles in the paper and that it is the student’s paper. Davitt disputed this.
What led Dorroh and Davitt to believe this?
The story in question made reference to two former nursing students that committed suicide within seven months of the June 9 issue. One of the students was named, an act which both Dorroh and Davitt thought to be insensitive.
The mention of the two students was not in any way intended to shed a negative light on the nursing department nor the campus. If anything, mentioning these students and their unfortunate deaths only proved that GCC students are not exempt from the suicide epidemic reported on the national press.
In the article, Dorroh said that the nursing department had “taken measures” to help the suicide victims’ classmates, as well as other nursing students, cope with the deaths. One of the ways students were encouraged to cope was by seeking counseling at the health center.
One of the goals of the article, as mentioned previously, was to let students know where they can seek help. This was a public service both for possible suicide victims as well as their friends and family.
Somehow, this message was overlooked and completely misconstrued.
During the meeting, Davitt said that he would order campus police to take the newspapers off the stands. He also asked Moreau to remove the story from the newspaper website.
Moreau agreed to pull the story off the website but asked Davitt if he could leave the newspapers on the racks until June 20.
Davitt agreed. But when Moreau returned to work on June 20, the newspapers had been removed, once again.
A police report regarding the thefts of the newspaper was filed by Pojawa to the campus police that same day.
A tip from the campus police, however, led Pojawa to the missing newspapers, which were found in a dumpster, at the far end of the campus.
We had officially been censored.
As we see it, any act of censorship, whether it be at the student press level or the professional level, not only infringes the newspapers staff’s right to free speech; it also quashes the community’s right to remain informed about events and issues that are relevant to them.
In this particular issue, the article in question contained valid, useful information regarding suicides and depression that may have proven helpful to some readers.
No one should have the right to control what is published in a student newspaper. In fact, there are now laws that protect student publications from falling victim to similar situations, like the one we experienced..
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenneger recently signed two pieces of legislation that will protect newspapers from theft and censorship.
The anti-theft measure, AB 2612, is designed to protect free publications by making it illegal to take more than 25 copies of a newspaper to recycle them or to prevent people from reading them.
The governor also signed AB 2581, an anti-censorship bill passed by the California Senate last month, which prohibits colleges and universities from penalizing students who engage in press activities required to produce a newspaper.
The Student Press Law Center said that the laws were passed in response to several incidents of student newspaper theft all over the state, wherein newspapers were missing, sometimes to be recycled, but more often because a particular issue had offended or threatened someone in position of authority.
We at the El Vaquero are aware of our rights and accompanying responsibilities.
The college paper is a publication by the students for the students. It is not a public relations medium intended to make the school look good by covering only the pleasant events or the so-called “good news.” College students, faculty and staff deserve fair and balanced reporting, even if the truth is not pleasant or beneficial to the image of the college.
The student paper exists to inform. It is about time that the state government understood this purpose of the press and finally provided legislation to protect it against those who feel that the concept of free speech means glossing over the bad news and reporting selectively, based on the preferences of those in authority. We have seen this happen time and again with other, major media outlets. At times, even the president of the United States thinks he can dictate what professional journalists can publish and what they cannot.
Because the college environment is a learning environment, it must therefore resemble the professional world as closely as possible. The professional media covers all stories, from the shocking to the mundane. We see no reason why we, as college student reporters, should be exempt from doing the same. The Constitution has long given us the right to do so, and now, the state government has given us the protection we need so that we can freely exercise this right.
In spite of the censorship incident, we at the El Vaquero march forward with our heads held high and we will continue to raise our voices in support of our fellow students’ right to the truth.