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Hampton controversy illustrates long-standing tension between HBCUs and student press

Hampton controversy illustrates long-standing tension between HBCUs and student press
By Lydia Lum

Hampton University’s confiscation of student newspapers earlier this semester is a reminder of the long-standing problems of maintaining a free press at Black colleges and building strong journalism programs there.
In fact, some media professionals have grown so skeptical of the integrity of Hampton’s program that they have dropped at least one outreach project there. Meanwhile, faculty and students at the private, historically Black school in Virginia remain hopeful that a university task force examining the newspaper’s future will provide solutions.
“If we are going to diversify our newsrooms, the solution doesn’t lie in lessening our involvement with Black colleges,” says Judith Clabes, president and chief executive officer of the Scripps Howard Foundation, which committed $10 million to expand Hampton’s journalism offerings prior to the newspaper controversy (see Black Issues, July 31). “We need more light, less heat and to keep an eye on the big picture.”
The seizure of student-produced publications is rare, but at Black colleges, problems with press freedoms are common, says Mark Goodman, executive director of the Arlington, Va.-based Student Press Law Center, which gives free legal help to journalism students and educators. Quite often, university leaders believe public image outweighs the constitutional First Amendment guarantee of a free press.
“The problems stem from the historic underfunding of these institutions that left them unequal to the mainstream,” Goodman says. “Since they’re not as well respected as those in the mainstream, they get very concerned about any news stories that bring bad publicity.”
Like other media observers, Goodman criticizes Hampton’s newspaper confiscation as a form of censorship. The controversy stemmed from news coverage of health code violations at the campus cafeteria. After a follow-up visit, inspectors gave the cafeteria a passing grade. Hampton provost and acting president, Dr. JoAnn Haysbert, gave staffers of the twice-monthly Hampton Script newspaper a letter discussing the cafeteria problems and cleanup. Haysbert told students she wanted her letter on the Script’s front page. Students, however, wrote their own news story for the front page of the Oct. 22 edition, and referred readers to Haysbert’s letter on page three. Before those newspapers were distributed on the 5,700-student campus, Haysbert ordered them seized. Negotiations led to a compromise. Students published a new edition with the letter on page one. Haysbert appointed a campus task force to clarify, and in some cases define, the roles of everyone associated with the Script. Through a spokeswoman, Haysbert declined comment, but a press release said she’s “willing to trust oversight and decisions” of the task force.
In response to the confiscation, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) pulled Hampton from its roster of colleges housing a 2004 summer program for high-school journalism teachers. Hampton has been a previous site for the ASNE seminars, which train teachers in news values and decision-making; the differences among journalism, opinion pieces and essay-writing; and how to better advise and strengthen a school newspaper.
The university would have received a $55,000 grant to administer the 2004 program and would have been the only Black college participating. But the money instead will go to another ASNE project.
“We don’t feel comfortable engaging with a university that took this kind of action,” says Peter Bhatia, ASNE president and executive editor of The Oregonian in Portland. “Press freedoms are fundamental to who we are. From everything we’ve seen, there’s been no acknowledgement of contrition or a sign of, ‘Gosh, we should’ve known better’ from the acting president.” The group doesn’t rule out future projects at Hampton, though, he adds.
But Clabes, a veteran editor and reporter prior to joining the Scripps Howard Foundation, disagreed with the ASNE decision. “It’s unfortunate that ASNE believes the best way is to go away,” she says, adding that Scripps Howard funding isn’t in jeopardy. As the philanthropic arm of the E.W. Scripps media giant, the foundation financed construction of the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications, as well as new courses, scholarships and an endowed faculty position.
The newspaper flap is the most recent dispute at Hampton involving journalism. Professor Charlotte Grimes, who had been slated to become the school’s first director, quit last year reportedly amid differences with president Dr. William Harvey over including investigative journalism in the curriculum. Harvey is on sabbatical this semester, but Dr. Chris Campbell accepted the job earlier this year as Scripps Howard School director with assurances that investigative journalism would be taught.
Such controversies tarnish the reputations of schools such as Hampton, which compete with universities boasting weekly, or even daily newspapers, along with nationally known journalism programs, says Richard Prince, editor of Black College Wire, an online service where schools share and distribute news stories. Even though the Script is run independently of the journalism school, scrutiny from the ASNE and other groups has included how journalism is taught there.
“If hiring editors don’t have confidence in certain journalism schools and programs, then those graduates have fewer job prospects,” says Prince, also a Washington Post copy editor.
Sean Lyons, an assistant professor in journalism at Hampton, believes college newspapers encourage students “to make democracy work for them.”
“If Black students can’t learn that at a historically Black college, where are they going to do it?” asks Lyons, also a veteran news reporter. He and other faculty don’t believe the administration wants to take over the Script or the journalism program, but hope university leaders have learned from the dispute and the fallout of the ASNE decision. Still, if another act of censorship occurred on campus, Lyons says, “it would be difficult for anyone to stay here and teach at a place that doesn’t embrace free speech and what journalism is.”
For their part, Hampton’s student journalists are learning valuable lessons about compromise and the important role a newspaper can play in the community. Regular newspaper publication has resumed since the confiscation. Since the controversy, the staffers have been buoyed by support from faculty, other students and media advocacy groups across the country.
“I’ve been able to see that I’m making a difference in people’s lives by working on the paper,” says Script editor Talia Buford, who is also on the campus task force. “This has really elevated my interest in journalism.”
Clabes says the Script staffers’ original decision to run a news story on the front page, rather than Haysbert’s letter, proved that students “have benefited from good journalistic grounding from experienced and dedicated faculty” at Hampton. She calls the Script a useful training tool, but not a make-or-break factor in whether Hampton achieves its goal of becoming one of the top 10 journalism schools nationally or whether graduates get good jobs. Buford, for example, has had summer internships at a Scripps Howard newspaper and at the foundation’s Washington-based wire service. Clabes calls those experiences “infinitely more valuable” than any gained on the college paper. That underscores the importance of partnerships such as the one between Hampton and Scripps Howard, she says.
Yet doubts linger about whether Hampton is worth the investment. Eric Newton, director of journalism initiatives at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, released a statement saying their grants “are designed to support a free and independent student press.” Among other things, Knight funds Black College Wire and the ASNE high-school teacher training program.
That’s not lost on Campbell, a member of the campus task force who has also been trying to reassure donors since the newspaper controversy erupted that the faculty remains committed to grooming serious journalists. The ASNE decision to drop Hampton from the 2004 program didn’t affect academics or student opportunities. But it dealt the school bad publicity and a morale blow to faculty. “We’ve had a hard, painful situation, and we’re getting looked at by a lot of journalism organizations,” Campbell says.

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