College journalists navigate political climate, freedom of speech

A fierce battle is being waged at the Claremont Colleges over the First Amendment, and a student publication is caught in the crossfire.

In the past couple years, students attending the city’s five undergraduate colleges have become increasingly politically active, with their demonstrations, statements and demands typically centering on issues of race.

While many students have expressed chagrin at what they say is a toxic atmosphere at the 5Cs—more conducive to whiteness than diversity—their doings have been reported faithfully in the two most well known student-run publications covering the Colleges.

Both The Student Life and The Claremont Independent are staffed by students dedicated to journalism and to amplifying the messages coming from campus activists.

The Student Life prides itself on having no ideological bent. Its reportage is largely neutral, though in editorials and opinions there tends to be a sympathetic tone toward student activists.

The Claremont Independent also demonstrates some solid reportage of student activism, but the publication makes no bones about having a viewpoint. When it comes to its staffers’ politics, The Claremont Independent’s slogan says it all: “Always right.”

This year, Pomona College junior Matthew Reade has served as co-editor of The Claremont Independent, along with Pomona senior Steven Glick. Mr. Glick stepped down from his post earlier this week, so Mr. Reade is now the publication’s sole editor.

“We are, and always have been, a conservative paper in the sense that we are an alternative to political correctness and liberal dogmatism on campus,” he said. “That tent, however, includes just about anyone from the center-leftist to the traditional conservative.”

While Mr. Reade says journalistic integrity is important, he also feels the Independent has a mission: to save the Claremont Colleges from what they view as out-of-control political correctness.

Last year, CMC students successfully demanded the resignation of Dean of Students Mary Spellman after she write an email in which she characterized students of color who felt alienated as not fitting “the CMC mold.”

Last year, Pitzer students cancelled a longstanding Reggae concert, while this year other Pitzer students—in a public mural and public email—urged white girls to “take out your hoops.” Both the concert and the earrings were characterized as “cultural appropriation.”

Pitzer students also found themselves under the microscope at the start of the year when a young woman made a Facebook post seeking a roommate to join her and other students in an off-campus apartment. It read, “POC [people of color] only.”

The Claremont Independent reported the story, accompanied by an arguably incendiary image—a historical photograph of a black man drinking from a fountain labeled “Colored only”—in an article called “Students at Claremont Colleges refuse to live with white people.”

A pattern has emerged. The Claremont Independent prints a story, which is then picked up by bloggers and conservative news outlets ranging from Breitbart to Fox News to The Daily Caller, before becoming discussion pieces in the American press at large.

Readers on both sides of the ideological spectrum then comment en masse on the students’ actions. Some posts are sympathetic, but a large number characterize today’s millennial college students as “special snowflakes” who can’t handle diverse opinions or company.

When students’ names and other identifiers are printed, they often find themselves, uncomfortably, placed in the public eye. In some cases detractors seek them out through social media, leaving criticism, racist comments and, in some cases, death threats.

Late last month, a number of students connected with the sociology department wrote a letter to Pomona College President David Oxtoby demanding the school rescind its offer to hire sociologist and author Alice Hoffman as a visiting professor of sociology.

They asserted that picking Ms. Goffman over two accomplished black candidates proved the college only gives lip-service to faculty diversity. What’s more, they say the methods and language she employed in her book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City over-sexualize black women and over-criminalize black men.

The students had one more demand. Should The Claremont Independent print the names of the 128 signatories of the letter—which were redacted “for individual safety in recognition of the violence inflicted on communities of color by various publications”—they asked the college take legal and disciplinary action. The latter, they suggested, might include expulsion from the school.

“Threatening to seek the expulsion of our staff from college for writing hard news stories for a campus news journal is just laughable,” Mr. Reade said. “Unless they have a master plan to invalidate the First Amendment of the Constitution that guarantees our right to free speech, we have no reason to worry.”

Laura Widmer, executive director of the Associated Collegiate Press, agrees with him. She says that the students who are feeling harassed are facing a harsh reality of the digital age.

“[College students] feel so empowered by social media. They get others who agree with them and they think, ‘Oh, my gosh, I’ve got the best idea in the world,’” she said. “They feel that empowerment and entitlement to ask and demand.”

Once you put something on social media, however, or in a mass email, Ms. Widmer says your opinions, and your identity, are a matter of public record.

“If they put things on Facebook… they’ve just started a forum for what they’re asking for,” she said.

Ms. Widmer says internet trolling is not the only issue spurred by the digital age. She believes the control given to news consumers by the web—the ability to seek out news sources and forums that support our preconceived notions—has made many of us unaccustomed to hearing dissenting ideas in a calm manner.

She also says that many young people seem to need a refresher civics course to understand the First Amendment better.  

“We want to let the media know that they have to be held accountable through their journalism and to foster an environment where diverse ideas can be shared and heard and valued—where we can disagree in a civil way that promotes conversation,” Ms. Widmer said.

Julia Thomas was editor of The Student Life last year and remains on the staff. She said that student journalists are wrestling with this new landscape. They have long discussions deciding when to use the names of students and do so on a case-by-case basis.

Ms. Thomas said she respects the right of Claremont Independent staffers to use the powers of free speech and free press, but has some issues with their coverage.

“The way The Claremont Independent reports on things, the way they kind of warp an angle of the student perspective, is unfair,” she said, emphasizing that many of the publication’s articles fail to deliver information within a broader context. “The Claremont Independent preys upon any kind of student protest or students organizing, or directly responds to pieces published in The Student Life. They really wait for those things to happen.”

Ms. Thomas, a Scripps College senior, has received a $30,000 fellowship to study citizen journalism. Beginning in August, she’ll spend a year traveling through India, South Africa, Spain and Ecuador, shadowing journalists to see how they report on citizen perspectives.

As far as the perspective many have on Claremont Colleges students, Ms. Thomas said she feels that a generational gap is definitely at play.

“I’ve been talking with my parents about these issues,” she said, adding that many older people “feel that student demands are unreasonable or over the top.”

While she examines news coverage across the world, Mr. Reade will spend another year scrutinizing life at the Claremont Colleges. He feels that The Claremont Independent is doing important work, and making a true impact on the atmosphere at the Colleges.

“As hard as it might be to believe, it really is true that the movement for common sense is winning out on campus. The more radical the leaders of these anti-free speech movements become, the more they alienate the students who even only partially recognize the value of free speech on campus.” 

—Sarah Torribio


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