Letter to the Editor: From Student Press Freedom Initiative

Followed by an apology from Dr. Stinson, dean of College of Business


Lindsie Rank, Student Press Counsel, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education

CWU’s assertion that the recent administrative confiscation of copies of The Observer during CWU Preview Day “could have been handled differently” is a laughable understatement. When College of Business dean Jeffrey Stinson and associate dean Keke “Coco” Wu stole stacks of newspapers with the intention of throwing them in the recycling, they violated the First Amendment.

So, yes. It should have been “handled differently.” The law requires that it be handled differently.

And that’s exactly what I told CWU this week in a letter addressed to President Wohlpart. At the Student Press Freedom Initiative — a project of the nonpartisan, nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, where I work defending the rights of student journalists — we see these instances of newspaper theft far too often. But it’s relatively rare that university officials are the culprits — and even rarer they are so brazen when they violate the First Amendment.

While theft is theft (and, make no mistake, even stealing entire stacks of free newspapers can be criminally prosecuted), it’s especially egregious when carried out by public university administrators, who are government actors.

Independent student journalism is essential to the operation of public universities. Publications like The Observer serve a watchdog role by informing the public of how, for example, administrators use (or misuse) public funds. This is exactly what The Observer did in reporting on CWU’s financial status.

Courts have recognized this essential role by making clear that, when administrators steal or otherwise censor student publications because they are unhappy with content, they violate the First Amendment. In Washington, where the New Voices Act strengthens the free press rights of student newspapers, these actions also violate state law.

The fact that Stinson and Wu were motivated by distaste for The Observer’s coverage of CWU’s budget woes makes the situation worse still. (You may recall that, in the presence of a Observer staffer, Wu remarked: “Why did [The Observer] think it was smart to print that story on the day that we have so many students coming to campus?”, later telling The Observer the removal was part of CWU’s plan to “present our prospective students and guests with a positive portrayal and outlook of the college and university.”) This is what we First Amendment lawyers call “viewpoint discrimination,” which occurs when an official censors content because they disagree with the viewpoint espoused.

We urge CWU to recognize the gravity of Stinson and Wu’s theft of stacks of The Observer and to educate staff about their legal obligations and the importance of a free press, so that something like this never happens again.