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Although independence is the ideal, financial difficulties are forcing some student papers around the country into making tough choices.

At many universities and colleges throughout the United States, student-run newspapers are editorially overseen and financed—in part or in full—by the school itself. Other student publications are self-funded and -managed; in a word, they’re independent. These independent newspapers benefit college towns for the same reasons an independent press aids society generally: independent newspapers help hold the powerful accountable, foster a robust marketplace of ideas, and further wise governmental decision-making.  

Although independence is the ideal, financial difficulties are forcing some student papers around the country into making tough choices. From Kansas to Massachusetts, publications are considering trading independence for the security and pecuniary boost that accompanies university affiliation. Facing budgetary constraints last month, for instance, the student newspaper at Southern Methodist University in Dallas was absorbed by the university’s journalism department, prompting the concerns that logically accompany a loss of independence.

These concerns stem from the fact that student-run papers face similar types of challenges to those that plague any other publication; when given the opportunity, college and university administrators are sometimes tempted to influence editorial content.  

The need for an independent student press becomes increasingly acute as friction develops between student journalists and administrative personnel. When those holding the metaphorical purse strings and White-Out are rendered uncomfortable or held accountable for poor decisions by enterprising, truth-seeking journalists, the temptation to quell opposition is often too great to resist. Non-independent papers may get along fine until they ruffle the wrong feathers. Yet censorship—or at the very least chilled, milquetoast journalism—follows oversight as surely as thunder follows lightning. 

Following a quibble several years ago between administration and one non-independent university newspaper here in Florida, college administrators fired the newspaper’s advisor and allegedly tried to freeze the paper’s budget and lock students out of their newsroom. Such actions send a chilling message to all school-supported publications. These concerns, though unsettling at any time, are heightened in an era when college newspapers in many locations have emerged as the leading news outlets for the surrounding communities, providing much-needed information into what would otherwise be information vacuums.

Because, as Thomas Jefferson once wrote to a friend, a free press is “first shut up by those who fear the investigation of their actions,” the fragility and importance of student-press independence should impel us, as Jefferson also wrote, to defend our cherished rights with eternal vigilance.

To read a recent editorial relating to a new movement among collegiate newspapers, click this link to The Independent Florida Alligator, April 11, 2018

Minch Minchin is a summer law clerk in the Tampa office of Thomas & LoCicero.  He will graduate this December from the University of Florida Levin College of Law with his Juris Doctorate degree. He will also be completing his Ph.D. in Mass Communications Law.  Mr. Minchin formerly served as the News Editor for the Independent Florida Alligator, a student led newspaper since 1906 with a current circulation of  23,000.