Washington University Press Policy

Jonathan I. Katz

``Guidelines for Media on the Washington University Campuses"

   

Reporters and television and radio crews wishing to interview, photograph, and/or videotape/broadcast on the Washington University campus must notify the Public Affairs office and make arrangements.

 

It is our objective to assist media in all ways possible, while at the same time realizing that Washington University is a private institution. It is our responsibility to consider the best interests of the University and all the members of our community....

 

Photographers, video and sound crews on campus property must be accompanied by a member of the Public Affairs office or their designee at all times.

 

When reporters request to interview students, faculty, or any other members of the University community on camera, a Public Affairs office staff member will contact the requested source. The staff member will identify the reporter, describe the request for an interview, and explain that the University sees the decision to be interviewed as each individual's choice. The requested source will then make an informed decision, and the staff member may choose to remain throughout any interviews....

 

If media do not follow these guidelines, they will be asked to leave campus. A conversation will then be held with the news desk and/or the station general manager explaining the guidelines and receiving his or her assurance that reporters, photographers, and video/broadcast crews will abide by these guidelines before they are allowed to return to campus.

 

[Source: Washington University Student Life, Tuesday, October 9, 2001]

 

What is going on here? The first paragraph states that no reporter may come onto campus without advance permission, and the fourth paragraph asserts that a Public Affairs office staff member has the right to be present at an interview between any student, faculty or staff member and a reporter. As written, this applies to interviews anywhere, on campus or off, including a student's dormitory room, a faculty member's home, or a public place. These are police state rules, and have no place in a university in a democracy. The fifth paragraph is both patronizing and naive. It regards reporters as if they were misbehaving children, and its author appears not to realize that editors are interested in reporting the news, not in protecting the University's reputation.

Can these rules be enforced? Reporters have been expelled from campus by the Campus Police. Students have little protection against reprisals if they violate them. Faculty are protected by a tenure policy, an enforceable legal contract, written when Washington University was a more liberal institution, which enumerates the (very limited) grounds on which a tenured faculty member may be fired. Nonetheless, the ``Guidelines for Media'' have had a chilling effect on public discussion, and many faculty members do not feel free to disagree with the administration publicly.

What was the motive for these rules, which can only diminish the reputation of Washington University? It is hard to be sure, but it appears the administration is terrified of adverse publicity. Or, perhaps, they just want to control everything. They may have wanted to conceal a lack of patriotic enthusiasm (dampened by administrators' public statements) on campus after September 11. If there were a fire on campus, the guidelines would make it a little harder for students who knew of hazardous conditions contributing to the fire to make their knowledge public. But this is the United States, not the Soviet Union, and the Public Affairs office cannot control the off-campus free press; the information would come out, and the attempt to suppress it would only make the University look worse.

Do other universities have similar policies? I haven't done a survey, but the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that neither St. Louis University nor the University of Missouri-St. Louis has a press policy like this. Faculty at other institutions are amazed (and disbelieving) when they hear about it. Washington University would like to be considered one of the nation's major research universities, but when it interferes with the civil liberties of students and faculty, liberties which even institutions of lesser pretension respect, it is unlikely to be taken seriously.



Jonathan Katz