The battle for free speech, free press: college campus showdown

MacKenzie Stewart, News & Opinion & Online Editor

In the U.S., there has not only been increasing political polarization but increasing infringements on the freedom of the press, which has not only hampered the integrity of journalism, but also lends light to the increasing political sensitivity of the age. The events at Northwestern University that occurred last month, where The Daily Northwestern, the student-produced campus newspaper, faced backlash for covering a protest and then for apologizing for the coverage, are a clear example of the current free speech atmosphere and the conflict it often poses with the right to protest.

On Nov. 5, former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Republican, came to speak at a conservative event at Northwestern University. The Daily Northwestern staff covered the protests surrounding the event, which included photographs of the protesters. The coverage received backlash from students because the photographs showed students’ faces. Students also accused those who covered the event of using harsh reporting and interviewing techniques. These complaints prompted an editorial apology—an act which was then criticized by journalism outlets across the country.

I don’t believe the staff should have issued an apology, but I also question whether the harsh comments from highly professional news outlets was the right response.

“And to the swarms of alums and journalists who…have been equally rancorous in their condemnation of our students…give the young people a break,” Charles Whitaker, Dean of the Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University, said in a statement released on Nov. 12 about the issue.

Michael del Rosario, current junior at Northwestern and an alum of the MHS class of 2017 and former co-editor-in-chief of the MHS student-produced newspaper, also provided a student perspective on the response from professional journalists.

“I think the incident with Sessions presented a platform for such [political and productive, empathetic] conversation to occur, but instead, it turned into a moment for professional journalists to pick on student journalists from a complex of superiority,” Rosario said in an email.

Some, however, share another valid point of view in believing that the students deserve to have a high level of scrutiny, even from mass media.

“Should they have gotten the backlash? Yeah, I think [so because Northwestern] is one of the highest-regarded journalism schools,” said Diane Covert, former journalism adviser at MHS for 15 years and current English Department Chair.

But I believe this event goes deeper than whether an apology should have been issued or not because it speaks to the quality of free press we have in this country, and it reflects on the decline in that freedom of the press and freedom of speech in the U.S. in general.

The Daily Northwestern students had a complete right to cover that protest; it was a protest that took place in a very public light, so therefore no invasion of privacy rights occurred with pictures being taken.

“[Northwestern student journalists should not have issued an apology] because they had every right to cover that event. Those students weren’t trying to not have their identity known. They were there, they were protesting, they were in a public forum, the [student reporters] had every right to publish the story, I believe,” Covert said.

A protest is meant to be public; that is the whole point of holding up signs and doing a demonstration, so it is not as though the protesters didn’t know what they were doing. Northwestern protesters should have been more cognizant of their actions and potential consequences.

However, I also recognize that it is important to consider that the protests took place at a university, in the private sphere, where the private institution does not have to grant the same First Amendment rights as a government organization, and therefore, protesting students can be met with harsh action from university administration. This fear of university action was part of the reason The Daily staff wrote its apology.

“Any information The Daily provides about the protest can be used against the participating students — while some universities grant amnesty to student protesters, Northwestern does not. We did not want to play a role in any disciplinary action that could be taken by the University,” The Daily editorial staff wrote on Nov. 10 in its apology regarding the article.

While I fully support the right of students to peacefully protest, in no way should the newspaper staff have faced backlash for its coverage. Covering the protest was a newsworthy event; it was practically begging to be covered, and a high-profile speaker, such as Jeff Sessions, would garner high media attention without protests.

“As Northwestern’s– and the city of Evanston’s– principal paper of record, The Daily had an obligation to capture the events, both for the benefit of its current audience as well as for posterity,” Whitaker said in the same statement mentioned earlier.

Another article by The Daily Northwestern revealed what the protests entailed, and here is where I see the quality of free speech on campus start to deteriorate.

“Over 150 students protested the event, some holding signs and others chanting ‘F–k Sessions.’ Protesters also stormed the back entrance to Lutkin and attempted to enter the hall by climbing through windows and opening doors,” wrote Yunkyo Kim on Nov. 8 in the article “Schapiro addresses Jeff Sessions protest, praises University response at Family Weekend event” published in The Daily Northwestern.

The First Amendment guarantees the freedom of assembly, but the inherent right to protest is meant to be peaceful and undisruptive; the actions by some Northwestern students as described in the article show that the protest came to be the opposite of that protected by the Bill of Rights, even if first amendment rights can be different at a private university.

Freedom of speech, in my opinion, is the right for anyone to speak his or her viewpoint, whether ultra-liberal or ultra-conservative, as long as it is not a direct threat or causes a clear and present danger, like shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. These viewpoints may be offensive to some, on either side of the aisle, or the speech might be in complete disagreement with a listener’s viewpoints, but that is the beauty of free speech.

Free speech enables those who disagree to speak back, to counter the arguments or address the argument’s fallacies. It is when this is censored, the ability to speak one’s mind and therefore the ability for others to respond, that the U.S. loses one of its founding principles.

Jeff Sessions should have been allowed to speak without interference from protesters. Protesters should have the right to protest, but peacefully. The Daily Northwestern should have been able to cover the very public actions with no backlash. All of this should have occurred but didn’t, and it sends, as Dean Whitaker said in his public statement, “a chilling message about journalism and its role in society.”

This “chilling message” represents the amount of backlash not only student journalists at Northwestern faced, but also the backlash national media outlets have faced, whether that is backlash from the president or calls of “fake news.” Free speech and free press seem to be under attack in a country where both have been long-standing and coveted principles in our democracy.