The Slippery Slope of Censorship
After a censorship scandal at the University of Otago made global news at the end of May, censorship has flashed back onto the student magazine radar.
By Hannah Cross
Thousands of copies of New Zealand’s longest running student magazine, Critic, were estimated to have been stolen at the hands of University of Otago’s Campus Watch.
The content in question? A magazine cover depicting a pixelated-style illustration of a person menstruating. This particular issue of Critic tackled the seemingly forever tabooed topic of menstruation.
Otago’s Campus Watch confiscated and destroyed at least 500 copies of the magazine, however Critic claims up to 2000 copies went missing.
To defend their shady dealings in a world of free press and free speech, the university issued a press release. According to the University of Otago, some staff members had expressed concerns that the cover was “degrading to women”.
Not only are we dealing with misconceptions about a biological process, we are dealing with censorship that is informed by these misconceptions.
Denounced by Debate
Editor, Julie Cleaver, of Auckland University of Technology’s student magazine, Debate, has voiced her concern about the Otago censorship scandal.
“I’m a big believer in freedom of speech and expression, even if it offends people,” says Cleaver.
“That’s why I’m shocked by members of the University of Otago’s administration for censoring a magazine about such an important topic that is far too often seen as taboo,” she says.
While Critic has experienced censorship most recently, Cleaver says Debate has not been subject to such actions, as they “exist totally independently from the university”.
But how do the student magazines in WA’s universities fare?
METIOR – Murdoch University
At this point in time, METIOR is subject to any content deletion as dictated by the Guild President and there must be Guild President approval before sending the magazine to print.
Although this is a simplified explanation of the current policy, these measures are in place to prevent METIOR from publishing misinformed content about Murdoch, the Guild, and their operations. However, as outlined in METIOR editor Sarah Smit’s contract, “the Guild President may delete or amend items as they see fit”. This one line gives a large amount of discretionary power to one individual, without further safeguards to protect public interest journalism or editorial integrity.
We all know Kombo Mashumba is no vicious dictator and values an independent voice for the magazine, yet according to the policy currently in force, he essentially holds the power to paint whatever picture he likes about the Guild Council in METIOR.
“I believe the current system places too much discretionary power with the office of President,” says METIOR Editor, Sarah Smit.
“There is a need for editorial accountability, but this must be balanced against freedom of the press.”
Although Smit believes Mashumba would never abuse his power to censor METIOR, she says future presidents may not have the same commitment to freedom of expression. In the same vein, Smit adds future editors may not have the same commitment to responsible journalism, so she champions the need for clear editorial policy.
The President and METIOR have been working towards revising and updating the METIOR policy to include more specific guidelines to uphold the quality of Murdoch’s only student publication.
Dircksey – Edith Cowan University
One of the newer student magazines, ECU’s Dircksey is not subject to any limitations, according to Editor Holly Ferguson.
“We have no limitations, the ECU student guild senate have a clear understanding that we are separate to them and their operations,” she says.
“We are only funded by them through SSAF [Student Services and Amenities Fees]”.
Before publishing, Ferguson must send a draft of the magazine to ECU Guild’s senate secretary and marketing manager, however she notes this is mostly to check for ad errors or false information about the Guild.
“We’ve never not been allowed to publish something,” says Ferguson, “Although we have had many incidents where we have published something and then received criticism from the university.”
Pelican – University of Western Australia
At UWA, Pelican operates in much the same way as any other media outlet operates.
While their print issues must be cleared from defamatory content or misinformation by a “Publications Committee” consisting of Guild representatives, they have free reign in online publication.
“No one external to the Pelican team checks our online articles before we publish them,” say Pelican editors, Joshua Cahill and Katie McAllister.
The editors note that although there have been instances in the history of Pelican where content has been refused publishing, nothing this era of Pelican has created has been denied publishing – including their recent piece about the best sex spots on UWA’s campus.
Cahill and McAllister both agree that university magazines are an important part of campus culture.
“University magazines represent a time capsule that captures the feelings of students on the ground.”
Grok – Curtin University
Curtin’s Grok is ruled by an editorial charter which outlines that print publications must be approved by the Guild President and content may be withheld if it is deemed “detrimental to the Guild”.
The Grok website is also monitored by the Manager Corporate Relations and has the authority to “request removal of any articles deemed to be in conflict with the editorial charter”.
This is similar to METIOR in the respect that the Guild President wields a lot of power paired with a vague definition of what can be seen as “detrimental”.
These types of non-specific guidelines are what inhibit student-run magazines. More specified procedures would allow both magazine and institution to have clear boundaries as to what they can and can’t do. This is an important next step in student magazine editorial policy-making.
Grok’s Editors, Jay Anderson and Savannah Franklin, however, still maintain full editorial control of the magazine so long as the editorial charter is not breached.
“As long as we strive for unbiased reportage, there are no limitations on what we can cover,” says Anderson.
Where to next?
It is clear there is some variation in editorial policy and regulation among WA universities’ student magazines. However, it appears that METIOR has drawn the short straw in the reach of its press freedom. It is also clear that knee-jerk reactions, such as that of the University of Otago, can trigger global news coverage.
Universities and Guilds alike need to work with and not against student magazines to create specific, transparent processes and procedures for running student publications to the best of their ability. Non-transparent restrictions on media publications are still contrary to the principle of press freedom, regardless of the publication’s size.
When student magazines are given the space to perform to their fullest functions, students become better informed, are pushed to think critically and connect with other students. In short, campus culture thrives.
Cleaver sums it up in two sentences: “Student media is known to push the boundaries and make people squirm. I think all good student magazines should be doing that to an extent.”
After all, we are the journalists of the future.