By: Michael Weissenstein, Associated Press Writer
(AP) A story in a campus paper has alarmed administrators of one of journalism’s highest awards, prompted a crackdown by the university and sparked a debate over journalism ethics, privacy and freedom of the student press.
It began when the weekly paper at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University, which administers the annual George Polk Awards in Journalism, reported in January that the student body president was resigning. It blamed the student’s “academic struggles” and listed what it said were his failing grades.
The school decreed that the student’s rights had been violated and responded swiftly. It suspended the editor for three weeks, changed the lock of the newspaper’s office and removed a faculty adviser.
That in turn prompted a terse response from the Society of Professional Journalists, which plans to send a task force to the campus to investigate.
“We do change locks like that in Third World countries, but this is the United States of America,” said Jim Highland, the Society’s national vice president of campus chapter affairs and a professor of journalism at Western Kentucky University.
Meanwhile, some members of the school’s journalism faculty worry the brouhaha could tarnish the campus’ image as a supporter of journalistic achievement. The university founded the George Polk Awards in 1949 to honor a CBS correspondent who died covering the Greek civil war.
“It is a slap in the face to the Polk,” said Professor Robert Spector, the award’s administrator. “I think it’s very embarrassing.”
Justin Grant, editor of the Seawanhaka newspaper, reported in a front-page story Jan. 21 that student body president Abdel Alileala was resigning for what Alileala called personal reasons.
“There has been speculation,” Grant wrote, “that Alileala’s academic struggles last year are the reason for his decision to resign.” He reported that Alileala had received an incomplete, two Fs and a D.
Administrators were furious, particularly when they learned that the paper’s faculty adviser had helped obtain and publish the grades, which they called a breach of university policy and, potentially, of federal confidentiality rules.
Alileala declined to comment to The Associated Press when contacted through a university spokeswoman.
Campus administrators said Grant had the right to publish Alileala’s grades, but they objected to how it was done. The article did not cite a source for the grades or give Alileala a chance to respond.
Most disturbing, campus administrators said, was the faculty adviser’s role in publicizing the grades.
The former adviser, journalism professor Mike Bush, said he learned of the grades from a student reporter, whom he declined to identify, e-mailed them to Grant and encouraged him to publish them.
Provost Gale Stevens Haynes said that may have violated federal regulations barring the school from releasing students’ personal information.
“The institution has to take a stand in ensuring respect for students’ privacy,” Haynes said. “This is truly not about the student newspaper and trying to control it and shape it in a way that’s comfortable for us.”
Grant this week was putting together what he promised would be a thorough and even-handed edition on the controversy.
“It’s an issue of press freedom. What rights do student journalists have?” he said.