The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which monitors threats to free expression and due process on college campuses, also keeps track of threats to student newspapers. On its website, FIRE lists seven warning signs of censorship of college papers, including efforts by college administrators to meddle with editorial decisions, withdrawal of funding, and the theft and destruction of copies of print editions.
Yet few of these controversies involve criticism of a student newspaper for following accepted journalistic practice, such as seeking comment from both sides of a controversy. But that is how the Harvard Crimson got itself into trouble recently with some student activists who seemed to have a rudimentary understanding of how journalism works.
After a Sept. 12 campus demonstration calling for the abolition of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Crimson contacted the agency for comment for its news story. ICE didn’t respond to the request.
It’s not clear how much a statement from ICE would have added to the story. Presumably a spokesperson would have disputed the notion that the agency should be abolished. Maybe he or she also would have questioned the connection one of the speakers at the rally made between ICE and the suffering of the Palestinians.
Still, asking ICE for a comment was Journalism 101. But not in the eyes of Act on a Dream, the organization that organized the anti-ICE protest.
The group circulated a petition, supported by other groups including Harvard College Democrats, demanding that the Crimson “apologize for the harm they inflicted on the undocumented community; critically engage with and change their policies that require calling ICE for comment; [and] declare their commitment to protecting undocumented students on campus.” The petition has received more than 600 signatures.
In response, the Crimson’s editors published an admirably even-tempered explanation of its policy:
“At stake here, we believe, is one of the core tenets that defines America’s free and independent press: the right — and prerogative — of reporters to contact any person or organization relevant to a story to seek that entity’s comment and view of what transpired. This ensures the article is as thorough, balanced and unbiased toward any particular viewpoint as possible. A world where news outlets categorically refuse to contact certain kinds of sources — a world where news outlets let third-party groups dictate the terms of their coverage — is a less informed, less accurate, and ultimately less democratic world.”
Responding to the allegation that, by contacting ICE, the newspaper had somehow endangered undocumented students, the editors pointed out that those Crimson reporters didn’t share with ICE’s media relations department any information about the names or immigration status of students involved in the protest, which had concluded by the time the newspaper contacted ICE. (Act on a Dream contends that “a request for comment is virtually the same as tipping them off,” which makes no sense. You could just as easily argue that covering the protest was a “tip-off.”)
It’s important not to overstate the significance of this incident, which is receiving so much media attention (including an editorial and a column at the Washington Post) because it occurred at Harvard, the alma mater of a lot of journalists at major newspapers. It would be equally, or perhaps more, objectionable if a student newspaper at a large state university were attacked for trying to be thorough in its reporting.
All the same, the campaign against the Crimson is dismaying. And although the target here is standard reporting practice, rather than the expression of opinion, the rhetoric about “harm” to undocumented students is reminiscent of justifications for the suppression of opinions that some students might find offensive.
The Act on a Dream petition accused the Crimson not only of tipping ICE off, but also of displaying “cultural insensitivity” by reaching out to an agency “with a long history of surveilling and retaliating against those who speak out against them.” In other words, the “harm” was psychological. Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and psychologist Jonathan Haidt have written that the movement to spare students from such damage “presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche.”
We know such an expansive definition of “harm” can undermine freedom of speech. The attack on the Crimson suggests that it’s also bad news for journalism.
Michael McGough is the Los Angeles Times’ senior editorial writer, based in Washington, D.C. This piece originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.