The freedom of the press was defeated on a 15-13-4 vote last week in a meeting of Harvard University’s Undergraduate Council, its student government body.
Perhaps not that literally, but the resolution that did pass on Nov. 10 — which indirectly criticized the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, for reporting on a campus protest and writing the news following standard journalistic protocols — represents a growing misconception of the role of the press in a free society. The recent developments at Harvard, as at other places, should be a matter of serious concern for those who value a rigorous free press — especially on college campuses.
In mid-September, around 100 Harvard students, organized by a student-led immigration advocacy group called Act on a Dream, held a protest calling for the abolition of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The next day, the Crimson published a story covering the protest, which in its tone generally offered an objective, if sometimes even positive, view of the protests.
Under the standard journalistic procedure of seeking comment from people or organizations being criticized in a news article, the Crimson’s reporters reached out to ICE after the event for comment on the story. However, the agency did not immediately reply to the request, which the Crimson noted with one line in the article.
Weeks after the article’s publication, Act on a Dream began circulating an online petition accusing the Crimson of “cultural insensitivity” for reaching out to ICE for comment and criticizing the paper for “their decision to uphold a policy that blatantly endangers undocumented students on our campus.”
The Crimson’s president, Kristine Guillaume, rightly wrote in a statement that the paper was upholding “fundamental journalistic values” requiring reporters to reach out to people and organizations for comment “in order to ensure a fair and unbiased story.”
This message was apparently lost on Harvard’s Undergraduate Council, whose resolution that passed Nov. 10 (almost two months after the protest itself) essentially endorsed the petition and called on the Crimson to change its policies.
This editorial board sympathizes with the concerns about the safety of undocumented students expressed in both the petition and the resolution. We understand that there is a very justified fear of ICE in marginalized communities — particularly among undocumented students at college campuses who live in constant fear of deportation.
However, it is less clear whether people were put in active danger by the Crimson’s decision to seek comment from ICE.
This resolution demonstrates a growing misconception about the nature of a free press, especially on college campuses.
Just as troubling is the fact that several campus groups, including the Harvard Democrats, have instructed members not to speak to Crimson reporters unless the paper changes its policies. Imagine that — the Harvard Democrats, the official organization of the Democratic Party at Harvard, telling members not to talk to journalists when the leaders of the Democratic Party have consistently (and rightly) criticized President Donald Trump for his attacks on journalists and the free press.
Last week, student journalists at Northwestern University felt the need to apologize for a standard news article covering a visit by former U.S. attorney general Jeff Sessions. Specifically, the editors of The Daily Northwestern wrote to readers expressing regret for using the university’s directory to look up contact information to solicit interviews from students, and for taking pictures of protesters in public — both of which are staples of news-gathering.
Freedom of the press is essential to a vibrant and open society. The same constitutional doctrine that gives student protesters the right to protest a government agency also gives student journalists the right to report on the protest and reach out to the government agency for comment.
But beyond this basic right, journalists also must seek to uphold the highest standards of news reporting, which includes telling all sides of a story that exist. The Dartmouth’s Ethics Code, which all staff members of this newspaper must sign and pledge to abide by, specifically obligates news reporters to seek comment from someone who is criticized in a story.
Now more than ever, people are raising questions about the balance between the duty to report and respecting the lived experiences of those affected most directly by our reporting — and these kinds of questions are legitimate ones to be asking.
Yet to be clear, it is ultimately the obligation of journalists to tell the news as it is and to avoid making value judgments in the course of reporting. In calling for the Crimson to change this standard upheld by every news organization, Harvard’s Undergraduate Council has not merely posed the threat of censorship, but has asked the professionals at the Crimson to violate the fundamentals of journalism for which they stand.
This opinion piece was excerpted from the longer editorial that published in The Dartmouth, the student newspaper of Dartmouth College, on Friday.