By Sierra Fang-Horvath, Feature Editor
So far, the 2016-17 school year has not treated Santa Clara University (SCU) well. CCTV cameras caught two students scrawling Swastikas and anti-LGBTQ slurs in a campus elevator in October of 2016. Three students have passed away in the third quarter alone, all in unrelated tragedies.
Most recently, however, SCU encountered a struggle between administration and the school’s newspaper, The Santa Clara, regarding a story published on February 2 and the administration’s ensuing censorship of portions of the article.
“A Closer Look at the $100 Million Sobrato Gift,” written by staff reporter Erin Fox, examines the generous donation from SCU Class of 1960 graduates John and Susan Sobrato to fund the construction of a new 300,000 square foot STEM facility. The Sobrato Campus for Discovery and Innovation, financed by the largest donation in SCU history, is set to be completed in 2020.
In the story, Fox included a quote from John Sobrato criticizing the SCU dean of engineering, Godfrey Mungal.
“Frankly, we have to have a new dean that’s more connected in the high-tech community. And I don’t want to throw stones at Godfrey, but … we need somebody that’s a modern, high-tech entrepreneur. That’s what we need to find to make this project really sing,” Sobrato said at the January 24 press conference about the donation.
After the publication, both in print and online, of the story with the quote, the SCU administration, motivated not by inaccurate reporting but by the unfavorable quote, requested that The Santa Clara remove the entire story from online and to cut it from further printing. The Santa Clara described it as an attempt to “arbitrarily [protect] reputations or [control] public perception.”
After numerous behind-closed-doors meetings between administrators, Editor-in-Chief Sophie Mattson, The Santa Clara’s advisors, and legal counsel, The Santa Clara constructed a counter-offer: only the controversial portion would be removed, rather than the entire article.
The administration accepted, and on February 13 the amended article appeared on The Santa Clara’s website. At the top was an editor’s note: “This is not the original version of this article, first published on Feb. 2. The original version contained additional comments and follow-up coverage. The comments were removed at the request of our publisher, Santa Clara University. We were and will remain strongly, vehemently opposed to removing sections of the original article. We found the request to be in violation of our commitment to journalistic ethics, and did so only to comply with our publisher’s request.”
An attached link sends readers to a scathing editorial titled “Censored But Not Silenced.” The editorial criticizes the administration’s “blatant censorship” and attempts to “editorialize” the paper. “We are not a talking piece for the administration,” The Santa Clara wrote.
Readers flooded the comment section of the editorial to debate the question: If the newspaper opposes the administration’s censorship, then why did they comply?
The debate remains rooted in the two sides’ differing views of what happened. A request by the administration to remove the portion could be denied; a demand, however, insinuates repercussions if the paper did not comply, and thus suggests an act of censorship.
“We use the word ‘request,’ but that’s subjective – was it a request or a demand? From our perspective, it felt more like a demand, but that could obviously be argued either way,” Jenni Sigl, the news editor of The Santa Clara, said.
While the paper construes it as an act of censorship, the administration has a different opinion.
“We do not view this as an act of censorship, but rather one of compassion. The University made a request of the newspaper to remove a small portion of a news article because it could possibly cause unwarranted harm to a reputation of a member of our academic community. Thus, it was compassion—not censorship—that was the driving force in our request,” SCU General Counsel John Ottoboni said in a statement released to Blueprint by Deepa Arora, the
Communications Director for the SCU Office of Marketing and Communications. Arora stated that she was unable to reveal further information to Blueprint.
(All further attempts by Blueprint to contact administrators, Ottoboni, and Mungal were unsuccessful.)
This “act of compassion,” as Ottoboni described it, is an invalid reason to encroach on The Santa Clara’s editorial sovereignty, according to Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center Frank LoMonte.
“They were literally saying ‘Remove this material because it’s unfavorable and unflattering.’ That’s protecting the reputation of the institution, and it’s never a legitimate reason to sanitize news coverage,” Lomonte said.
When asked whether the administration threatened the paper’s funding, Sigl said that while such a threat was not explicit, the editors considered this potential consequence while making their decision.
“Having our funding threatened was never explicit. We were just trying to consider our position and be thoughtful of the fact that we do rely heavily on the university’s funding and that if we wanted to continue our same operation, we’d need that funding. We’re very aware that the university is our primary source of funding, so ultimately that’s why we made the decision we did,” Sigl said, adding that, had The Santa Clara been an independently-funded entity, “this would be a different story.”
Although the administration may not have explicitly threatened the paper’s funding, Jim Ewert, California Newspaper Publishers Association’s General Counsel, believes that the way in which the request was made could imply a potential threat.
“In and of itself, a request to remove the quote would probably not constitute censorship. But if it is in a manner that is threatening or where the students feel like they have no choice, then I think it could be construed as censorship,” Ewert said. “You can plausibly deny that any direct threat was made, but at the same time, the way that you say it can convey just as strong a message as the content of the message itself.”
Had The Santa Clara taken the dispute to court, they would have a powerful argument against the administration’s censorship under California Education Code 94367, according to LoMonte.
The law states that no private postsecondary educational institution can punish a student for speech that would be constitutionally protected by the First Amendment had the student been off-campus. LoMonte believes that underlying threat of defunding that Sigl fears could be construed as punishment.
“The law is really more about protecting you against punitive action than it is about free speech or free press. It speaks in terms of punishment or discipline, so the question is: Would a judge see the withholding of funding from the publication as punishment? I think you’d have a good argument that killing somebody’s newspaper program in retaliation for legally-protected speech constitutes punishment,” LoMonte said.
While The Santa Clara did not consult with legal counsel, they spoke with “someone who has a lot of experience in communication law,” according to Sigl, whose name they did not release.
“We were aware of the California Educational Codes and that we were under no legal obligation to do what we did,” Sigl said. “Not complying with their request posed a threat of changing our current operation because while it is a complicated relationship, the university is our publisher. This kind of things happens often, where a publisher makes a decision and you may not like it, but you have to comply with it, so I think we did what we could in the situation.”
While Sigl defends The Santa Clara’s decision, LoMonte, had he been advising the newspaper, would’ve told them to “push back as hard as they could.”
“You don’t want to establish a precedent that you’ll cave in in-anticipation of being blackmailed. They really shouldn’t be paying ransom to people that take hostages, in a sense,” LoMonte said. “I would have said, ‘We believe that we are legally protected if we refuse this order. We don’t believe that you can enforce this order because enforcing it would have to take the form of punitive action and punitive action would violate the California Educational Code.’”
Furthermore, in Ewert’s eyes, the administration’s request was pointless because the article, in its full form, had already been released to the public.
“The article had circulated in print and had been posted online for a week, and you can’t undo that. The information that the administration sought to keep from the public had already been communicated. Now this story is bigger because of the administration’s involvement, and there are media outlets talking about this,” Ewert said. “The audience is now much broader than just [SCU] alumni or those on the [SCU] campus. Now it’s everyone in the Bay Area, and maybe even beyond that.”
The newspaper’s decision to comply with the administration’s wish sharply contrasts with the heated words of the editorial, which accuses upper level administrators and university counsel of “[prioritizing] their own interests at the expense of honoring the values of free speech and journalistic principles.”
“We believe that this act of censorship sets a dangerous precedent for the future of journalistic integrity on this campus if the university can so easily control the content we publish, regardless of its nature,” The Santa Clara wrote. “While we value the university’s funding and support, we value our editorial independence just as highly. For without it, we would not live up to the standards of a respectable and trustworthy news organization.”
LoMonte, meanwhile, thinks “it took a lot of guts to speak out publicly and to call attention to the fact that [The Santa Clara was] censored, and also agrees with Sigl’s fears.
“I worry that it plants the idea that you can pressure newspapers into changing perfectly accurate stories under an implied threat of punishment. It’s not a good decision for an administration to treat a student-run paper as if it is the PR newsletter of the campus,” LoMonte said. “It undermines the credibility of the publication. You plant the idea in people’s minds that they may be reading news that has been sanitized.”
Moving forward, Sigl believes that The Santa Clara’s censorship sheds greater light on the First Amendment dilemma at play on a large scale across the nation.
“We have to put this situation into the context of the time we’re living in, and how important freedom of the press is. It has to start at high schools and colleges if we’re really going to be a country that’s committed to those values,” Sigl said.