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Since last year, we have been answering ProPublica Illinois reader questions about how we do our work. Thoughtful, challenging questions have been rolling in ever since, and we’ve been answering them in an occasional series of columns. In this edition, web producer Vignesh Ramachandran answers a question about student media.

I write for my school newspaper and often the topics we want to write about have to go through many levels of school administration in order to be approved. Is there a similar process in real-world journalism publications such as yours? — Arysha Madhani

Not exactly.

Most professional news organizations, like ProPublica, are editorially independent from any external oversight. Donors have no say in what we cover. We pursue and publish the stories that we think are important, that best serve our mission and that best serve you, our audience.

Our Illinois reporters, who find story ideas in all sorts of places, as Jodi S. Cohen has explained, typically put together detailed pitch memos for our editor-in-chief, Louise Kiernan, and our deputy editor, Steve Mills, who then vet the ideas. There might be some back and forth to focus a story. But when it’s approved, it’s full steam ahead into reporting and writing.

That process might look similar for student media at public colleges and universities, where the buck often stops with student editors-in-chief who exercise editorial discretion. A faculty adviser might provide consulting when asked by student journalists. But the law is clear, according to Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel at the Student Press Law Center: Administrators at public colleges and universities can’t legally stop publication unless a story is unlawful or would create a physical disruption, like a riot, on campus.

At private colleges and universities, administrators “generally have much more authority to directly censor content,” Hiestand said in an interview. Administrators at some schools understand student journalists’ role on campus, while others regard the school paper as an extension of the public relations office.

But sometimes, control can come down to a paper’s funding source. Schools that fund papers sometimes pressure or threaten to cut funding when they’re not happy with coverage, while those that are independently funded often are freer from oversight.

An excerpt from a 2016 joint statement published by the American Association of University Professors, the College Media Association, the National Coalition Against Censorship and the Student Press Law Center. (Via American Association of University Professors website)

Hiestand said in a later email that, in some cases, courts have made clear that there are lines universities can’t cross: “There was a big case out of Minnesota many years ago where a public university tried to get creative with changing the student activity fee system in a way that had a negative impact on a paper. ... The court made clear that the school could not do indirectly (change the funding structure to punish/negatively affect the paper) what they could not do directly (pull the paper off the racks or otherwise physically censor).”

At the high school level, “prior review” and “prior restraint” — mandatory reading or blocking a story before publication — are part of doing business, he added. Student journalists at a Northern California high school recently resisted administrators who wanted to review a profile before publication of an 18-year-old classmate in the adult entertainment industry. In early May, the students went ahead and published the story anyway. The school had threatened to discipline or even dismiss the paper’s faculty adviser, according to The Washington Post.

At professional news organizations like ProPublica and ProPublica Illinois, our regional newsroom, any form of prior review and prior restraint by anyone but our newsroom staff will get our lawyers’ attention. When a Cook County judge barred us from disclosing details about a case at the center of a story we were reporting about the state’s child welfare agency, we challenged the order in court because we believe prior restraint by the government is a violation of our First Amendment rights.

Sometimes, newsrooms hold a story or withhold information in the interest of national security. The U.S. Navy recently asked The New York Times not to publish the names of some SEAL team members in a story about a platoon leader accused of war crimes, citing the unit’s covert work. The Times named some team members, but not those who were not already identified in court records.

In student media, Hiestand sometimes sees colleges exercising “creative censorship.”

“So instead of going and just pulling a story from a paper, which they can’t do (in public colleges) and they won’t do, they will go after an adviser’s job … as a way to kind of get to the students and to retaliate against them,” he said.

That can be a tough reality when you’re a student publication and your biggest beat is the school itself.

Here in Illinois, student journalists at Loyola University Chicago, a private school, recently highlighted how the university’s marketing and communication team has been blocking them from getting access to campus sources by insisting the Loyola reporters go first to a university spokesperson.

The students characterized the policy tactics as “straight out of the Trump playbook.”

After those very public complaints, Loyola administrators finally began changing course. The university, which says it treats the Loyola Phoenix “like any other professional media outlet,” convened a working group — which included the Phoenix editor-in-chief — to refine its media policy. The updated guidelines allow faculty, staff and administrators to directly respond to media interview requests, and university marketing and communications staffers will help with finding experts, setting up interviews or answering questions whenever needed.

Henry Redman, former student editor-in-chief of the Loyola Phoenix, told ProPublica Illinois that student journalists at the weekly have no shortage of issues to pursue on and off campus, such as examinations of the campus safety department, sexual assault, street crime, dorm shortages and dining hall food quality.

“While it might not make administrators feel very good that their students are publishing all these things about them, they’re doing it because it’s important and they’re trying to make campus better for their readers,” said Redman, a 2019 journalism graduate from Cleveland.

Amelia Blakely, spring 2018 Daily Egyptian news editor, works through a story in the Daily Egyptian newsroom at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. (Brian Muñoz/The Daily Egyptian)

In June, student reporters at the University of Chicago’s The Chicago Maroon were subpoenaed as part of a lawsuit between the university and a donor foundation. The paper had obtained documents showing the foundation was concerned about the management of a $100 million donation to the school.

At Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, Brian Muñoz, The Daily Egyptian’s editor-in-chief during the 2018-19 school year, said the century-old student newspaper faced criticism after investigating the public university’s administration, including reporting about the former chancellor, a large number of interim positions and improper hires.

“We see ourselves as the watchdog,” said Muñoz, a recent graduate who is part of ProPublica’s Emerging Reporters Program. “I know we’ve gotten pushback from the administration and public that we have not given them a fair shake, and that’s not the case. If we didn’t love the university and care about it, we wouldn’t be here.”

So whatever roadblocks there are in the approval process, power through. It’s worth it.

Do you have a question about journalism? Send it to us at [email protected].