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November 23, 2009: Student journalists fear plan will allow administration to control content

LACC

That’s the headline of an article by staff writer Michael Edwards that appeared last month in the Student Press Law Center.

Edwards described how Los Angeles City College administrators and the school’s student newspaper adviser and staff are at odds over a proposed plan to incorporate the newspaper’s budget into the student activities department, a move student journalists fear would give administrators an opening to exercise prior review over the contents of the paper.

Rhonda Guess, The Collegian’s faculty adviser, said she feels moving the paper to the activities department is an attempt by the administration to take more control over the editorial content of the paper. She said she has been told directly by administrators that they would be taking a look at the content.

“It’s disturbing,” Guess said. “My concern is [journalism] students will not come to this program if they know we have an administration antagonistic to student reporters.”

Frank Elaridi, editor-in-chief at The Collegian, said he is afraid all content will be one-sided and biased if the paper is moved, reflecting the administration’s hand in its operation.

“The problem with [the move] is that they would be editing all of our content,” Elaridi said. “[The content] would no longer be in our adviser’s hands, it would be in their hands.”

LACC’s president Jamillah Moore said perceptions that the administration is hostile toward the paper stem from misunderstandings.

She said the purpose of moving the paper’s budget to the student activities department is to help them become more financially independent, not to exert editorial control.

“Our goal is to make [the paper] self-sufficient and to move them off the general fund,” Moore said. “What we’re trying to do is put the paper in a climate where they can be self-sufficient … we’re trying to help our people understand it’s going to give them more.”

Talks of the move come after a recent budget controversy, reported in late September in the Los Angeles Times. All departments received an across the board 15 percent cut, due to cuts in school funding. The paper, however, was scheduled to get a 40 percent cut.

Guess said the budget cuts were retaliatory action being taken by Moore because of the paper’s reporting, which “has teeth.”

The Collegian recently ran an article about the school’s basketball team falsifying player information. According to the story, athletes were reportedly given false permanent residence addresses so they would be able to pay in-state tuition, making it possible for them to come play basketball at the school. The article is up for a national award for top sports story of the year from the Associated Collegiate Press.

Moore said the budget, which bears her signature and cut The Collegian’s budget from $25,000 to $15,000, was not supposed to be signed.

“I don’t know how the contract ended up in the discussion,” Moore said. “I was sitting down with the vice president of administrative services, looking at a series of budgets. I had no idea that would be taken and published in the paper.”

Ken Sherwood, the president of the academic senate, said he feels the problem is with the leadership at the newspaper.

“The newspaper adviser just doesn’t want anyone holding her accountable for anything the newspaper does,” he said. “Rather than being accountable, she starts screaming about First Amendment violations.”

He also said the remarks made by the newspaper staff regarding the budget were “absolutely false” and called them “slanderous.”

The tension between Moore and the newsroom began about a year ago, when Moore wanted anyone who was shooting video on campus to have to sign release forms. Confrontation arose again about four months ago when construction contractors told students the president forbade them from speaking with the student press.

“It chills speech,” Guess said. “And it chills speech because students are intimidated by administrators. I saw them; I saw they were chilled. They had to stop what they were doing in the middle of a story.”

Guess said she has a list of other grievances committed by administrators against the paper that were meant to “intimidate” and “censor” student activity.

Guess described another incident involving the president, in a public accreditation hearing, asking any media representatives to identify themselves.

One of the student reporters present, Mars Melnicoff, complied with Moore’s request. She said she was “embarrassed” by the way Moore treated her. After the meeting was over, Melnicoff said Moore approached her and asked her whether she was going to sign a release, or continue to “behave inappropriately.”

“It was totally humiliating,” Melnicoff said.

Guess said she was concerned with the way Moore chided and intimidated Melnicoff.

“My big concern is that I stand up and protect students,” Guess said. “I’m worried.”

Because of the actions of the administration, Elaridi said he and other editors have had to take additional action to make sure the reporters know their rights so they aren’t “bullied” by the school’s administrators.

“[The administration] is creating a hostile environment for the student press and constantly burdening the First Amendment, free speech rights, and trying to create pre-conditions to exercise a civil right,” Elaridi said.

Click here to go to the story on the Student Press Law Center’s web site.

Number of days COC has been without a school newspaper: 92

1 comment

1 Brandon Filerman { 12.07.09 at 6:45 am }

I’m an alum of Adlai E Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois. We recently had a very similar situation where the administration censored our school paper to the point of not printing the entire Nov. 20th issue that was scheduled. I’m writing a paper in my Argumentative Writing course about the incident in favor of the First Amendment Rights the student body has in regards to its journalism. I’d love to get a few of your opinions on whether or not the censorship and administration over-seeing the editing.