Student speech on college campuses is again being challenged in Hawaii, with two separate stories surfacing in recent weeks: the administration take-over of Kapi‘o, the student newspaper at Kapiolani Community College, and a lawsuit filed against UH Hilo over restrictions placed on the distribution of literature on school grounds.
They’ve definitely stirred up memories of my college journalism experiences… including serving as editor-in-chief of the weekly student paper at UH Hilo (Ke Kalahea) and the daily student paper at UH Manoa (Ka Leo).
First, on the slopes of Diamond Head, the student newspaper Kapi‘o is being shut down.
“With heavy hearts, we are sad to announce that the Kapi‘o News has met its end,” reads the announcement on the publication’s Facebook page, explaining:
On May 16 this student run campus publication will be departing Kapiolani Community College forever. This decision was made by the school administration who wanted to move Kapi‘o in a new direction. In the future, the Kapi‘o is turning into a place to post outstanding student work, and other events as deemed important by the school. This way a writing/editing staff is no longer needed. All decisions are going to be made by KapCC faculty and staff — therefore we will no longer be a student publication.
The last assertion is key, though it is in dispute.
In my view, a “student publication” is run by students, one where students decide — for better or worse — what gets published.
Don’t get me wrong, this autonomy can lead to trouble. I got into my fair share of it at both college papers that I ran, sparking many scoldings and even a couple of petitions and protests. But that kind of real-world independence and its consequences are the whole point of the college newspaper experience.
The KCC administration seems to be questioning the relevance of the student-run operation because (1.) journalism-specific courses are not currently being offered at the school, and because (2.) the things being published don’t exhibit the “quality” they expect to see. In other words: KCC student journalists can’t be trained, and what they’re publishing sucks. So the school’s solution is to take back the keys (and apparently divide up its nice office among other departments), and instead set up a “student life website” where the grown ups can pick and choose what student work represents the “excellence” they want to showcase.
That’s a load of baloney. Yes, a student newspaper can make a college campus look bad. Sometimes that’s because the student journalists are bad. And sometimes that’s because the student journalists are doing everything exactly right.
I should note that I did graduate with a degree in journalism… but decided to go that route after getting involved in student publications. When I was filing three stories a day for Ka Leo, I still harbored delusions that I was going to be some kind of scientist.
What was the KCC Board of Student Publications thinking? As it turns out, nothing.
Yes, there’s supposed to be a publications board to decide how to allocate the student fees that go to support them ($10 per student per semester), but the campus has been operating without one. So after a new faculty advisor was appointed late last year, he proposed converting Kapi’o into a faculty-curated outlet. And the plan was approved by KCC Vice Chancellor Mona Lee and Chancellor Leon Richards.
Three administrators, it seems, decided to overturn a primary platform for over 8,300 student voices.
“This is a student news organization funded by student fees, and the students deserve their independent voice, not a student life web site run by administrators,” commented Donovan Slack, a Kapi‘o alum who is now a Washington correspondent for Gannett. “I went on to become an award-winning investigative reporter at The Boston Globe before landing here in D.C., and it all started at Kapi‘o.”
“That is terrible,” commented Robert Lopez. “I’m an investigative reporter at the Los Angeles Times and my first reporting experience was at Kapi’o. It all began there for me at KCC’s Diamond Head campus under Winnie Au.”
Lopez then asked if the student body is planning to protest. Others (including myself) urged some kind of action. Alas, it seems only current and former student journalists are getting riled up. And there’s been distressingly little attention paid to the Kapi‘o shutdown. Here are some links:
“We have far from thrown in the towel,” a Kapi’o student representative posted on Facebook. I’m glad for that. And maybe a printed student newspaper is no longer a relevant format for publishing in this day of blogs and Facebook pages. But it’s clear that whatever form student-run media takes at KCC, it won’t be the outlet that had been carrying the student voice for decades.
Meanwhile, on the Big Island, UH Hilo is being sued for its “excessive restrictions on the rights of student organizations, and limited student speech in open areas of the campus.”
Merritt Burch, president of the Young Americans for Liberty chapter at UH Hilo, dared to step away from the group’s assigned space behind a table to distribute copies of the U.S. Constitution in the Campus Center Plaza.
She and her fellow YAL members were told that UH Hilo policy forbids approaching students that way, and were later referred to the campus “Free Speech Zone.” A zone at the lower edge of campus on the banks of a muddy ditch.
The fight was reminiscent of a free speech battle that a few Ka Leo veterans and I found ourselves in after launching an independent student paper in 1997. It was called the University aVenue, with a handful of students reporting, taking photos, doing the layout, selling ads, and — after getting it printed — distributing it on campus.
Of course, we figured the best place to get copies into the hands of students was at Campus Center. And that brought us into the crosshairs of Jan Javinar, then interim director of Co-Curricular Activities, Programs and Services, who told us we could only distribute our paper in designated “free speech areas.”
Long story short, after a little attention from the media (and help from the Student Press Law Center), we were allowed to continue to distribute on campus. At least in our case, it didn’t come to legal action.
Now, UH says it is has “initiated a review of the policies involved and the manner in which they were enforced. We will make any changes that are needed to ensure that free expression and First Amendment rights are fully protected on that campus and throughout the University of Hawaiʻi System.”
Update: KCC student enrollment updated from 2,500 to 8,300.