Student Journalists Accuse Keene State College Of Blocking Access To Staff

May 17, 2017

There’s been a public dispute going on in Keene over the rights of student journalists.

This is all playing out at Keene State College, where editors at the student-run newspaper say administrators have been limiting access to faculty and staff for interviews.

Now, college officials are responding to those concerns.

Keene Sentinel reporter Ethan DeWitt joined NHPR's Morning Edition to talk about his coverage of this story.

This all started earlier this month when the college student newspaper The Equinox spoke out it in an editorial. What did they say?

They published an editorial in the last edition of the student paper, right before graduation. And basically, they did not mince words. They accused the college of what they called a pattern of suppression and obstruction. Basically what they were saying was that in recent months and years, the college communications office has made it more difficult for them to get interviews with staff and faculty and administration officials for student journalists. And has basically imposed this requirement that everybody check in with the communications office, get questions pre-approved, and interviews monitored by the communications office itself. They say this pattern has made it very difficult for them to report even basic stories and nearly impossible for them to report some of the bigger stories they’d like to do on campus.

And the college’s journalism faculty also weighed in as well, right?

Right, so in that same edition of that student paper, which as I understand is widely read around campus, the journalism faculty penned their own letter to the editor, and they also did not hold back. They accused the college of suppressing the First Amendment and suppressing freedom of inquiry. They said that their own students, beyond just the reporters for the student newspaper, the journalism students who actually need to complete assignments and projects for grades, that they were being affected negatively by these new media policies, which they say have happened over the last two years.

Keene State College President Anne Huot responded last week with a memo to staff. What did she say?

It basically it took pains to praise the student newspaper, which has garnered a lot of national awards over the years. It also voiced the president’s commitment to free speech on campus and to a vibrant press. It then went on to say that the press office and administration encourages faculty and staff to freely give interviews to reporters and said the only communication that they ask is checking in with the communications office. That was the initial email, and then that email sparked concern by journalism faculty over not being specific enough. That was followed up by a subsequent email.

Would this be a change in policy? Is the college requiring that faculty check in with the communications office first before they do an interview?

That’s what’s unclear. If you talk to journalism faculty and student journalists themselves, they say it is a requirement. According to journalism faculty, the students have 20 documented instances where people have directly told them that they cannot speak to them without getting approval. If you talk to the campus communications office itself, they say approval is not required. It is just a voluntary check in by staff and faculty if you’re in contact with a student journalist or a professional journalist.

The college is saying it just wants to be in the loop on these interviews?

Right, and that’s what they said in a clarifying email on Monday, saying this is strictly voluntary. But faculty are saying that doesn’t go far enough, and they are hoping to meet and to draft a more clear policy this week with the president.