The Second Kind of Dumb: Investigating allegations that my university, UW-Oshkosh, is “muzzling” student journalists

“There’s two kinds of dumb. The guy who gets naked and runs out into the snow and barks at the moon, and the guy who does the same thing in my living room. The first one don’t matter. The second one you’re kinda forced to deal with.”

– Hoosiers

For as long as I’ve been here at UW-Oshkosh, I’ve told basically anyone who would listen that we’ve got a great place for young journalists to learn the trade. That’s why it really upset me when a former student sent me this article from FIRE about how the campus was “muzzling the campus watchdog” with a rather heavy-handed policy:

 Journalists at universities are essential to keeping the public informed on campus activities, whether through reporting on mundane affairs or acts of impropriety.

Administrators at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh have impeded this function, imposing an onerous process on reporters, including student reporters, who want to interview university employees.

Journalists at The Advance-Titan, an independent student newspaper at UWO, maintain they must go through particular steps in order to secure an interview with university employees. While university officials have refused to outline the details of this process in writing, these hurdles have been in place for at least two years and impose a constant barrier to the work of the paper’s journalists, whose reporting focuses on UWO and its personnel.

FIRE stands for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and its mission is “to protect fundamental rights on campus concentrates on four areas: freedom of speech and expression; religious liberty and freedom of association; freedom of conscience; and due process and legal equality on campus.”

I’ve worked with them on a couple occasions in various areas of student press and found the organization to be really interested in making sure people’s rights don’t get stepped on just because they work or learn on college campuses. The folks there aren’t above being a tad hyperbolic, but I haven’t known them to be flat-out wrong on something. I’d heard rumblings similar to those FIRE described from former and current students about “having to go through UMC to get an interview” with pretty much anyone on campus.

I’ve raised a stink about stupid policies, administrative overreach, borderline threats to student journalists and all sorts of other things on this blog, regardless of where they were happening, so to have something like this basically show up in my living room really ticked me off.

Still, journalism is the field in which if your mother says she loves you, you go check it out. So, I read the article, dug into some research, talked to a couple students and then reached out to the head of the University Marketing and Communications department, Peggy Breister.

Breister has worked in UMC for about five years at UWO, currently serving as the department’s executive director. She also has news chops, having spent 25 years of reporting and editing experience in our state and having earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Minnesota. I asked for an interview, but added that I knew she was busy, so I included a number of questions about the FIRE story, the university policies and the situation at hand in case she wanted to type up some stuff.

She responded via email and here’s a chunk of her response:

We ask media to contact us when they would like to do a story about the University. We are here to help reporters connect with the individuals who can best respond to their questions. We have not changed our practices. Since the A-T is the media, we feel we should work with them in the same way that we work with other media.

We don’t require the A-T to provide us with written questions, but that is often the way we receive their initial requests, often due to deadline, or it is what is requested of us by the individual they are seeking to connect with. Reporters are welcome to request interviews, send questions via email, etc. We do not pre-approve questions or responses. We do try to clarify vague requests to help us identify the topic and appropriate source.

We try to make connections so requests can be responded to quickly. I think we have been very responsive. The A-T also does many stories that we are not involved with.

Several things concerned me with this response:

THE NON-ANSWER: I know I don’t always ask the best questions, but I think I was pretty clear with this one:

What is the explicit policy regarding student journalists and access to university employees? Is it true that all their requests must go through your office?

I spent at least five minutes playing a game of “Where’s Waldo?” with Breister’s response, trying to find a simple yes/no answer to that second part and some clarity for the first one. In regard to the first part, Breister responded by pointing me to this part of the university website, which isn’t so much of a  policy as it is set of vague tips on how faculty can talk to media folks about stuff.

In regard to the second part of the question, I got about four half-answers to completely different questions: We prefer if media folks contact us. The A-T gets the same treatment from us as we give to other media outlets.  We never ask for questions from them in advance. We’re working really hard here.

All of those things might be true and yet none of them really addresses the important issue, which requires a simple yes or no answer. Or, as I explained it to a equally peeved colleague: “It would be like if you asked if I thought you were a good classroom teacher and I responded with, “Well, there’s no doubt you’re here at a University, and nobody ever questioned your research skills and I know you think teaching is really important.”


THE NON-DENIAL: The FIRE article really lays it on thick when it comes to allegations of First Amendment denial, information hoarding and generally weaselly behavior. As someone who prizes objectivity and fairness in journalism, it was a bit disturbing to me to see no mention of trying to get UWO to comment or trying to check this out with the university. I appreciate the heat FIRE likes to bring, but let’s play fair. So, I gave Breister a shot:

What is the rationale behind limiting access in the fashion the FIRE article describes? Or if you feel the article is inaccurate, please feel free to explain the inaccuracies here…

Nowhere in her email did she address the FIRE article, either to agree with it or to refute it. The closest she came was this:

I’m sure you have seen this piece, but I include it in case you have not:

I guess if a national organization dragged me to the middle of the internet and started smacking me around, I would like to think I’d stand up for myself. Or, if they were right, I’d issue some sort of explanation as to how sorry I was about it or that I’d do better or whatever it is we make people say these days so they don’t get  put in Twitter Jail.

Maybe that’s just me, but not hearing a full-throated defense of my own institution made me a bit queasy.

THE RAMIFICATIONS: In reading through that email, I saw the lack of a clear policy, and that created problems for me on two fronts.

First, as a student-press advocate and journalism educator, I was concerned how this was going to impact my students. I don’t advise the paper anymore, but I send plenty of kids into the field for class assignments that get published there or elsewhere. I train them to go to sources for interviews and get answers from people who have them. Any restrictions that prevent these journalists from getting to those sources is worrisome.

Second, as an employee of the university, I know I’m governed by a lot of policies and rules. I also know that I’ve been interviewed for more than a few stories over the years, both through UMC hookups and from folks independently reaching out to me. If there’s a rule as to how I’m supposed to deal with something, I’d like to know what it is before I accidentally violate it.

Also, I’d like to know what the penalty is for breaking that rule. Contrary to popular belief, me having tenure doesn’t mean I can show up dressed like and acting like Rahad Jackson. Even more, there are plenty of people out there without tenure who would be operating under this policy, so that’s a concern.

So, I pushed back with two pointed questions that sought yes/no answers about the university’s policy regarding interview-seeking behaviors and the veracity of the claims of FIRE. I also provided this simple explanation for my concerns:

I guess what concerns me most is that student journalists (even those in my classes who aren’t operating student media outlets) are being told they HAVE TO go through UMC for anything on campus.
If that’s not true, let’s disabuse them of that notion and make it clear that UMC’s job is to help facilitate interviews when journalists need that help. I’ve worked with UMC many times at multiple universities over the years where some TV station wanted a professor who knows X and the UMC played matchmaker. That’s totally acceptable and makes sense.
If, however, it is a situation where the students ARE being told that public employees at a public institution are being actively withheld from them unless they go through UMC, lest some form of punishment (whatever it is… lack of access… a stern talking to…) befall them, that’s different.
If you can more clearly answer those concerns, it’ll make things a lot easier and simpler for me when I’m teaching the students and working with student journalists in various capacities.
Breister was clear in her response:
Hopefully this information will help you in your contacts with students:
UMC has guidelines related to media relations that we ask people to follow.
There is no policy, nor is there a penalty for not working through us.
OK, fair enough. I have worked in journalism, student media, education and parenting long enough to know that a lot of wires can get crossed over time and what I say isn’t exactly always what someone else hears. Let’s give each other the benefit of the doubt, right? Bygones be bygones and all that…
So, I forwarded this to the one student who had been helpful to me as I tried to iron out what was “suggestion” and what was “required,” hoping this would close the book on the situation. If nothing else, it’s a good note to have on file for any future staffers.
Then, someone forwarded me this email between Breister and a former editor of the paper that just pissed me off:
Well, shit, sheriff, I guess this changes things a tad…


TOMORROW: What has happened, what needs to happen and what should be done about this situation.

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