The Crite Sees the (Red) Light

For quite a while now, this blog has included in its sidebar a widget from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), indicating their rating of the status of student speech at Mesa State College. FIRE grades colleges and universities on a red, yellow, or green light scale that reflects the amount or nature of a school’s commitment to the free expression of ideas and opinions.

Mesa State’s red light rating is defined in part by FIRE as the rated school having at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech”. FIRE’s rating was justified by what they saw as overly restrictive language in student handbooks and housing regulations. These are available for review here. I’ve written previously about some of these restrictions as they impact what would otherwise be lawful political speech. This came up at Mesa State during the 2008 Presidential campaign.

This past week, the college’s rating caught the attention of the Mesa State Criterion. Their editorial in the February 15 edition laments the college’s ability, through their policies, to take anything it doesn’t like and chalk up the offense to harassment”.

The editorial went further to complain in print about what the paper saw as MSC administration’s recent attempts to “(make) it incredibly hard for the newspaper to reach its goals of being a campus watchdog and covering controversial news”. Administration apparently did this by routing all media inquiries (including the Crite’s) through Dana Nunn, MSC Media Relations Director, and by instructing all other involved MSC staff not to talk to the media. The editorial cited, among other things, a recent outbreak of bedbugs in a dormitory as an example of this.

As much as I think that Dana Nunn has a somewhat legitimate job to do in today’s reputation-sensitive, message-management world, I really don’t think that it’s the MSC administration’s job to provide the Criterion with access to whomever or whatever they want. I’m actually wondering what there is about the fact that Ms. Nunn is the point person for media inquiries that would prevent the Criterion from reporting on anything they wanted to.

If the Criterion staff is bent on being a “campus watchdog”, they need to rely more on what they are hopefully learning in journalism school. This includes using multiple sources (sometimes off-the-record), and tools such as vigorous research and public records requests. In the case of the bedbugs in the dorms, I would be attempting contact with those students affected by the outbreak, and making requests under the Colorado Open Records Act for invoices or disbursements related to any expenses for professional pest control services at the dorm in question.

The Criterion has a somewhat lively history of run-ins with MSC administration, most recently in 2004 during the hiring process for current MSC President Tim Foster. To their credit, the Criterion staff is trying hard to meet the challenges presented by a complex institution, rife with equal measures of political correctness and chicanery. Going outside those lines so carefully drawn for them by professional spin doctors is how the Crite, like any other journalistic entity, becomes a watchdog with teeth that hopefully aren’t missing every time a new semester begins.

The Crite’s editorial concludes with a plea for transparency, and for a commitment from administration to work toward an environment where free speech rights are respected and protected. Making sure that infringements of those rights are properly investigated and reported, and enlisting the assistance of organizations such as FIRE, the ACLU, and others when necessary, is one way of assuring that the Criterion remains a dynamic and relevant “voice of the students” well into the future.

The Criterion staff will be hard at work later today putting together this week’s edition for publication Tuesday. The commitment outlined above starts this week, and every week that they publish in the future.

Best of luck to them.
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