Editor’s note: Reporter Emily Andersen is a journalism student at BYU with a personal and professional interest in the world of journalism and freedom of the press.
Professional journalists have been laid off across the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic, and according to the Washington Post, college journalists have risen to provide important community news coverage in their absence. But the freedom of the press can get a little tricky at a private university like BYU.
According to School of Communications Director Ed Carter, the fact that BYU is a private university means top school administrators technically have the right to restrict what content is produced for school-sponsored media. He said the current BYU administration does a good job of allowing students to express themselves freely in these publications.
“I think in general there’s still a commitment to allowing the search for truth in the marketplace of ideas, and I think BYU administration recognizes that students need to have some freedom to do that,” Carter said.
There have been instances in BYU history when leaders restricted what was published in the Daily Universe. In 1960, there was an edition of the Universe in which the editorial page was left blank out of protest, because the school had not allowed the students to publish information regarding some upcoming construction plans. In 1962, the editor-in-chief of the Daily Universe was reprimanded after he published an editorial supporting one of the candidates for student body president, and he subsequently resigned from the paper.
In the 1980s, a student-produced newspaper called the Seventh East Press received permission from BYU to sell their paper from newsstands on campus, but the paper was banned from BYU in 1983 because of some of the controversial topics the paper covered. According to a story, titled “Will the ban roll on? A biased view of a controversial subject,” that was published in the Seventh East Press after it was banned, 160 BYU faculty members signed a petition to bring it back.
There have been other student-run papers throughout BYU’s history, with varying degrees of anonymity and reliability, including Zion’s Opinion, which was distributed for eight months in 1966, and the Student Review which was started in 1986 and ran for over a decade. These other publications avoided being as directly tied to the university as the Seventh East Press was.
Stephen Fortuna, a recent BYU graduate who runs the satirical website, the Alternate Universe, said early on he considered applying for the Alternate Universe to become an official BYU club, but he decided against it for fear of being censored by the school.
“There was kind of a perception that if we were to become an official BYU organization, we would lose a lot of our freedom of speech,” Fortuna said.
Fortuna said he believes that even though the Alternate Universe is mainly comedic, it plays an important role in the discourse surrounding BYU-centric topics.
“Our primary goal is to make people laugh but I don’t see us only as comedians,” Fortuna said. “Satire can accomplish some of the same goals as journalism in that we can start conversations about topics.”
Fortuna said he’s learned about how information spreads online through his experience with the Alternate Universe. In the audio clip below he explains a bit more about how Alternate Universe articles spread on social media, and his views of how the Alternate Universe fits with the First Amendment guarantee of a free press.
Carter, who teaches classes on journalism law and the freedom of the press, said it’s important to have a variety of voices contributing to the marketplace of ideas. He said in the current political climate, journalists are often portrayed as enemies of the people, and he hopes students will really understand and promote the freedom of the press in society.
This semester, Carter has been working with a group of communications students, not all studying journalism, on a blog focused on the importance of the freedom of the press. The blog is written mainly for an audience of college and high-school students.
“I think it’s valuable because as they’ve written about free press issues, they’ve come to understand better the role of journalism in society and the danger of attacks on journalism,” Carter said. “Journalists are not perfect but they generally are trying to do altruistic work in the public interest and trying to find and disseminate truth.”
Carter said he’s glad student journalists at BYU and at other institutions across the country have had the opportunity in the last several months to step up and learn more about the importance of journalism by participating in public discourse.
“One lesson learned there is just perseverance, that the news is going to go forward, no matter what. That’s just what we do. There’s a commitment to that and we don’t just shut down because it’s hard. So that lesson, I think, will be good for students, no matter where they go,” Carter said.