By Paul Fletcher
The faculty and administrators at Christopher Newport University have an opportunity that educators live for: They have a true teaching moment.
They can instruct their students on the value of free speech.
They can underscore the importance of freedom of the press.
They can make a point about respect for opposing points of view, even when one vigorously disagrees.
And they can affirm – resoundingly – that certain behaviors, including theft, won’t be tolerated.
Here is what happened at the Newport News school late last month, according to Emily Cole, editor-in-chief of The Captain’s Log, the CNU student newspaper:
The Captain’s Log printed a story about a former campus police officer who had been arrested and charged with fraud and forgery in Georgia. A student named Ashley Starks was quite upset by the article and confronted the author, Corrie Mitchell. Starks had been an aide at the campus police department and was friends with the man who was charged.
Angry that the paper reported the arrest, Starks told Mitchell she was going to collect and toss copies of the paper, Cole said. Cole obtained a computer screen capture in which Starks allegedly posted on her Facebook status page that she “threw away over 700 copies of the Captain’s Log today.”
The Captain’s Log staff prints only 2,000 copies of each issue, so if the papers were destroyed, the student staff lost nearly half of that week’s edition. The 700 papers are worth about $300. Cole filed a police report on Oct. 4 with the CNU campus police. But she later was told that since the Captain’s Log receives most of its operating money from student fees, she was merely a complainant and the university itself was the victim of any crimes that were committed.
The campus cops also indicated that the matter had been referred to the Center for Honor, Enrichment and Community Standards (CHECS) – a faculty-run discipline system.
CHECS doesn’t make its findings public, said Terry Lee, faculty adviser for The Captain’s Log. The only way anyone will ever know if Starks gets disciplined is if she herself talks.
The Student Press Law Center, based in Arlington, reports that this incident is not the first time student newspapers have been taken.
In fact, the SPLC maintains a “Newspaper Theft Forum.” Student newspapers, usually distributed for free from racks placed all over campuses, are particularly vulnerable to this kind of attack. Seven to 10 times a year, reports the SPLC, student newspapers are stolen because the thieves don’t like what has been written.
Think about it. Isn’t college supposed to be when one learns to explore ideas and to think critically? Isn’t the academy where one learns to respect people who think a little differently?
Those are the questions the administrators at CNU should be asking themselves. And they should be pondering what message they want to convey.
Cole said that the newspaper staffers just want an apology and compensation for the work that was destroyed.
An apology would be a good start. If Starks is found guilty and disciplined by the professors who run CHECS, a creative punishment could include requiring her to read the Bill of Rights, with special emphasis on the part about freedom of speech and freedom of the press. And then maybe make her write a paper on what the First Amendment means. That really would be a teaching moment.
A strong statement from the administration supporting the newspaper staff’s right to do their job – to cover campus-related news then publish it – would be highly appropriate, but unlikely. Both Cole and Lee said that student journalists at the school have a rocky relationship with the administration. Last spring, school leaders, under the auspices of a “go green” initiative, sought to cancel the print newspaper and move The Captain’s Log online; they later recanted and restored funding. Earlier this month, CNU announced it is discontinuing its journalism minor.
Back to the papers that were allegedly taken and thrown away: If the administrators at CNU do nothing after this incident, they should be aware of the signal they send through inaction.
If they seek to downplay the episode, or if they ignore the harm done to their student journalists, perhaps the people in charge at CNU should issue the following memo:
From: The CNU administration
To: All CNU faculty
From now on at Christopher Newport University, we will teach that the Bill of Rights has nine amendments. We no longer recognize that first one.
Paul Fletcher is the president of the Society of Professional Journalists, Virginia Pro chapter. He is the publisher and editor-in-chief at Virginia Lawyers Weekly, based in Richmond.