Public Colleges Restricting Media Access Raises Free Speech Concerns

Three recent incidents on CUNY campuses where journalists were detained or denied access raise concerns of free speech and student rights.

Public Colleges Restricting Media Access Raises Free Speech Concerns

The above sign prohibiting specific journalists was posted outside of the chancellor's office at the University of Colorado Boulder during a student sit-in.

Recent incidents at two City University of New York campuses have added fuel to the fire of discussions and concerns surrounding public universities restricting media access.

On August 12, freelance journalist Jeff Bachner was approached by a college security officer as he was taking pictures on the Kingsborough Community College campus.

The officer, Corporal Maurizio Gambino, told Bachner he was trespassing and handcuffed him. Bachner was taken to the campus security office where he says the officer re-cuffed him to a railing over his head, according to the Columbia Journalism Review. Bachner was eventually released without charge.

On August 16, freelance journalist J.B. Nicholas was interviewing Bronx Community College students regarding Confederate statues on campus when he was handcuffed and issued a summons for trespassing. The charges were later dropped.

On October 1, freelance writer Edward Blake was also escorted off the Bronx Community College campus by campus police after attempting a follow-up story regarding the statues.

Incidents such as these, according to civil rights lawyers and press advocates, violate First Amendment rights.

“This is unprecedented, as far as I’m concerned,” says civil rights attorney Norman Siegel. “Journalists want to hear what young people have to say. These days, in the era of Trump, there’s so much disrespect for the First Amendment.”

Both community colleges are part of the City University of New York system whose schools consist of 273,000 students, making it the largest urban university system in the U.S.

A statement from CUNY officials indicated that the university system allows each campus to make its own media access protocol.

Nicholas filed a complaint against CUNY regarding the incident. Loretta Martinez, general counsel and vice chancellor for legal affairs at CUNY, says the school has opened an investigation into the complaint. Nicholas says he has yet to receive further information regarding the investigation.

When asked about the removal of reporters, Bronx Community College communications director Therese LeMelle says it’s done to avoid causing disruptions.

“We don’t want reporters on campus bugging people as they go about their day. If we have any media on campus, they call ahead and we set it up. They don’t just have free reign.”

Attorney Michael Hiestad says public colleges are allowed to establish rules that regulate the time, place and manner of visitors for safety and health reasons.

Hiestad says LeMelle’s response “makes sense to the extent the policy says you can’t barge into a classroom and interrupt a teacher, or go into a library and interrupt studies. When you’re walking across the campus on the quad or going to a car in the parking lot, that doesn’t fly.”

Nicholas was outdoors when he was apprehended and Bacher was outside the school’s gate.

Students, Staff Reportedly Urged to Not Speak with Press

Hiestad also says the denial of media access to students infringes upon their right to free speech.

“At the college level, these are adults, not children anymore. It’s putting a weird bubble around students that says, ‘we’ll protect you from reporters who want to ask questions.’”

At Keene State College in New Hampshire, reporters from the school newspaper and a local newspaper were unable to get direct responses from administrators and coaches in the athletic department during interviews.

Steve Gilbert, an editor for the Keene Sentinel, says coaches told him off the record that “they would lose their jobs if they talked candidly.”

Shelby Iava, who was a sports writer for Keene’s student newspaper, says when she asked to interview her friend who was a member of the swim team, she declined because coaches were told by Keene State media relations director Kelly Ricaurte to not talk to the press.

Ricaurte denies the woman’s claim, indicating there was no policy or process in place that would prohibit students from speaking with media.

“It comes down often to image control,” says Frank LoMonte, the director of the Brechner Center for the Freedom of Information. “You don’t want to authorize students to interact with media because you want to control what’s written about you.”

In May, during a student sit-in outside the chancellor’s office at the University of Colorado Boulder protesting a fossil fuel divestment, security posted a sign with the faces of four journalists from a local newspaper and the words “Not Allowed in Building”, according to News 9.

One of those faces was that of higher education reporter Elizabeth Hernandez of The Daily Camera. Hernandez says the sign felt like a wanted poster.

The University issued a statement saying the office in question was private and locked 24/7 and that The Camera had been asked to speak to protesters outside the building.

“We are still investigating why posters were put up in the office with photos of the journalists,” read part of the statement. “Clearly, that was not appropriate and we have apologized to The Camera.”

About the Author

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Amy is Campus Safety’s Senior Editor. Prior to joining the editorial team in 2017, she worked in both events and digital marketing.

Amy’s mother, brother, sister-in-law, and a handful of cousins are teachers, motivating her to learn and share as much as she can about campus security. She has a minor in education and has worked with children in several capacities, further deepening her passion for keeping students safe.

In her free time, Amy enjoys exploring the outdoors with her husband, her 2 children and her dog.

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