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Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom. This editorial was written on behalf of the board by Star Tribune Opinion intern Aurora Weirens, a Minnesota native and student at Cornell University.


Last month, Gov. Tim Walz signed an omnibus education policy bill that included "New Voices" legislation granting student journalists greater freedom from censorship and increased self-determination regarding their content. It's an important step for guarding the integrity of journalism, but the protections — which only apply to middle- and high-schoolers — should be extended to college journalists.

Although legislation at the college level would vary greatly from the recent action (which applies to students in grades 6-12), and while its reach would be limited to certain public institutions, it would be worth the effort. College student newspapers are increasingly ravaged by censorship, fear of reprisal, excessive administrative oversight and dominating media relations teams, into which image-obsessed universities pool millions of dollars.

In response to the rise of cancel culture, the power of social media and society's increasingly litigious tilt (fueled by the all-powerful vigilante justice of the internet), colleges are rigorously working to curate and maintain an idealized image. And student journalists, whose job is to put these institutions under constant scrutiny, are thus a liability, since incriminating articles can have vast consequences. There's concern that student journalists, despite having similar power over public opinion as professional journalists, don't have an appropriate understanding of their position or influence and how to wield it. "Student journalists mean well," said Joe Linstroth, media relations director at Macalester College in St. Paul, "but they lack understanding of best journalistic practices and ethics."

In the case of Macalester, student journalists have more freedom than at many Minnesota colleges. They are able to publish without censorship and can access administrators without intermediaries (although Maddie Heinz, editor-in-chief of the Mac Weekly at the time, recounted a removal, without warning, of censorship protection that had been outlined in the student handbook — causing significant alarm in 2023 before it was re-established).

Unfortunately, other Minnesota universities have done far more to quiet and almost meticulously censor their journalists. Before fall 2023, student journalists at St. Olaf College had almost unrestricted access to faculty, campus information and leaders, and were able to be a source of transparent reporting for their community. But within the past year, journalists, under threat of violating new college policy, found their usual sources and subjects no longer easily accessible without heavy administrative supervision, said Caroline Geer, executive editor of the Olaf Messenger during that period. (A spokesperson for the college said the policy hasn't changed.) An editorial writer's inquiries at the University of Minnesota yielded a similar story of increasing, insidious restrictions over student journalists' abilities to do their jobs.

What results is a self-perpetuating cycle for everyone, not just the student journalists. Because these journalists are unable to have casual, recurring and transparent conversations with their sources, it's easier for them to produce flawed coverage — which then provides justification for universities to further clamp down.

Furthermore, by having restrictions and skittish attitudes toward student journalists, universities seem to have forgotten the purpose for their existence: to educate. Student journalists are there to learn how to be good, ethical and fair. If they are viewed as ignorant, yet opportunities to learn are withheld, both parties are left jaded. Students feel that the university is unresponsive and dismissive of the hard work that they do to report on a community, and the university is annoyed by having to mentor novice journalists who are working with their hands tied.

With the passage of the New Voices legislation, Minnesota became the 18th state to offer such protections to students in public middle schools and high schools. Despite questions about the practicality of such legislation at the college level, it would be helpful in starting a conversation that universities don't want to have with their journalists.

Otherwise, such institutions will continue the self-fulfilling prophecy of distrusting student journalists, and transparency, education and democracy will suffer.