Officials at Arizona State University are taking steps to limit what goes in the campus newspaper after student editors published a photo that outraged the administration, editors and professors say.
The editors, legal experts and some ASU journalism faculty say if the administration doesn’t back off, it will violate the First Amendment and more than 30 years of case law.
Last month, The State Press published a fullpage photo of a woman’s bare breast pierced through the nipple for an article about exotic body piercing.
The black-and-white photo ran on the back page of the Oct. 7 edition. Nearly 20,000 copies were distributed free on campus and in downtown Tempe.
ASU President Michael Crow’s office received a number of complaints, said Virgil Renzulli, vice president for public affairs. One was from homebuilder Ira Fulton, who has donated nearly $60 million to the university.
"This is not a censorship issue," Renzulli said. "There are certain things that do not belong in a newspaper."
State Press editor Cameron Eickmeyer defended the image as tasteful, artistic and appropriate for college students. The paper’s editorial board of 10 student editors voted unanimously to run the photo after deliberation because it represented the story well, Eickmeyer said.
"We knew there was going to be a reaction," Eickmeyer said. "We thought it was worth it."
On Oct. 14, Juan Gonzales, vice president of student affairs, met with Eickmeyer and threatened to cut funding and force the paper off campus, Eickmeyer said. Gonzales didn’t return calls for comment.
The paper receives about 10 percent of its annual budget — about $150,000 — from ASU to pay administrative costs, such as utility bills. The rest comes from advertising, said State Press adviser Kristin Gilger.
ASU journalism professors came to the paper’s defense. Seventeen of the 21 full-time faculty members at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication signed a resolution praising the paper’s "efforts against censorship."
Eickmeyer said he hasn’t heard from the administration since. The paper continues to operate from its location in the Matthews Center on campus.
Now, the administration wants to establish an editorial policy for content in the newspaper. Administrators met last month with Gilger and Steve Doig, interim director of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, but they couldn’t come to a consensus. Student editors weren’t invited to the meeting and aren’t invited to one scheduled next month.
"ASU has asked The State Press to provide editorial content policies that provide explanations on how editorial decisions are made in relation to content, including photographs," according to an ASU press release.
However, no policy can give the administration veto power over what is published, said Mike Hiestand, a legal consultant with the Student Press Law Center in Arlington, Va.
"They’re talking about wholesale censorship," Hiestand said.
Student editors have final say, except in rare cases where publishing would risk substantial disorder or violence, interrupt classes and class work, or interfere with school discipline, Hiestand said.
"It is entirely within the right and power of students and editors of The State Press," Doig said.
Numerous court rulings have forbidden officials at state colleges and universities from censoring student newspapers because they don’t like the content. Prohibited activities include suspending editors, removing repugnant material, withdrawing financial support, and forbidding controversial articles.
Two members of the Student Media Advisory Board said they stand by the decision of Eickmeyer and the other student editors. The 10-member board, made up of five ASU employees, two students and three newspaper employees, selects The State Press editor each semester.
Tom Blodgett, assistant sports editor at The Arizona Republic and the chairman of the Student Media Advisory Board, said he believes the student editors did their due diligence before publishing the photo. It isn’t necessarily a decision he would have made, though, he said.
"I expressed my point of view and own reservations about it," he said.
The State Press plays closer to the cultural cutting edge than other publications because of its readership, Blodgett said.
Board member Chris Lavelle, the Tribune’s Internet services director, said the bottom line is student editors have the right to make decisions and not everyone will agree with them. Like Blodgett, she said she might not have made the same choice.
"The State Press is about and for the student body," Lavelle said. "But the students also should understand they have a huge responsibility. The audience also includes donors, faculty, and others," she said.
Doig said he believes an editorial policy would only create opportunity for more confrontation. Eickmeyer said he also thinks it’s a bad move.
"A solution that is Draconian is going to be loselose for everybody," Doig said. Everyone needs to step back and take a deep breath, he added.
"What needs to be explored carefully and rationally would be for State Press to be completely independent from ASU," Doig said.