Our View: University has no right to a ‘no comment’

DKS Editors

One week ago, the editorial board at the Daily Nebraskan, the independent student newspaper of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, ran an editorial explaining why comments from some of the school’s top officials had been missing from the paper.

The problem began when Daily Nebraskan reporters began requesting documents from the university this year – something anyone is allowed to ask of a public institution under the Freedom of Information Act. Soon after, officials received an e-mail from the university’s vice president urging them not to talk to reporters from the newspaper. Editors met with the university spokeswoman, who asked them the reason for their inquiries.

The editors’ answer: “Because it’s our right.”

Daily Nebraskan editor in chief Brian Anthony Hernandez met with university Chancellor Harvey Perlman yesterday morning to discuss relations between the school and the paper as support from local, national and other college media began to surface.

In its staff editorial on Tuesday, the staff of the Western Courier at Western Illinois University questioned the point of running an on-campus student paper when the most important sources of university information weren’t willing to share news.

“This situation may seem like little less than a problem to those non-journalistic minds out there, but in fact, this is a serious situation,” they wrote.

Kathleen Rutledge, former editor of the Lincoln Journal Star, best stated the fundamental point of this free speech issue in a comment posted on the Daily Nebraskan’s editorial.

“Ultimately, though, it’s not about who’s mad or who looks bad, it’s about keeping governments open, seeking the truth and trying to fairly and evenhandedly put complex issues in context for the citizens of the state,” Rutledge wrote.

It’s especially hard to understand the rationale behind the UNL administration suddenly having problems with information requests when such requests had previously been met without much fuss. In an article yesterday on Insider Higher Ed, Perlman explained, “The university usually has provided documents requested by the newspaper without formal FOIA documentation.” This makes it even harder to justify the school’s odd behavior.

Daily Kent Stater reporters make these requests all the time. When this information appears in stories, it may seem rather unexceptional, and most of this data isn’t anything all that revealing. It’s our job as journalists to synthesize it and report on things that we feel you, the readers, should know.

This is all the Daily Nebraskan is trying to do, and the fact that administrators have the gumption to throw up red tape in the face of student journalists who simply want to do their jobs is damaging to the integrity of the university. While it may well be a lesson in real-life bureaucracy, leaders of educational institutions should be as transparent as possible as students’ tuition dollars keep their organizations running.

After yesterday’s meeting with Perlman, Hernandez said the chancellor was “impressed with the balanced stories he’s read so far in the Daily Nebraskan this year.”

“I said I hope to see the return of his voice and other administrators’ voices in our newspaper soon,” Hernandez said. “Our ears and our notebooks are always open.”

We whole-heartedly support the Daily Nebraskan in pressuring its silenced administration. We’d do the same thing if we ever found ourselves in a similar situation.

The above editorial is the consensus opinion of the Daily Kent Stater editorial board.