Education Lab

After Trump-Hitler controversy, Fresno State distances itself from student newspaper

A day after Fresno State’s newspaper sparked controversy with its front page comparing Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler, student writers – and university officials – were distancing The Collegian from the university.

The Collegian’s editorial board published a piece Tuesday “clarifying” Monday’s editorial – which featured a photo illustration of the Republican presidential candidate’s head on Hitler’s body – and standing by its sentiment, but emphasizing that the opinions in the article do not represent the views of Fresno State.

“It is important to stress that The Collegian, a student-run publication, isn’t subject to prior review. No faculty or staff members read the article before it was published – as it should be,” Tuesday’s article said. “Students all over campus are engaging in politics in a way they never have before, and those are the people we care about. The community at large has begun speaking about the pliability of a president who has made such poor linguistic choices that he has warranted the comparison to Adolf Hitler.”

Monday’s front page featured a large photo of Trump alongside the headline “Sieg Heil!” – the infamous Nazi salute. “Trump’s America is the Fourth Reich,” said the editorial, which is titled “Donald Trump is going to get us all killed,” and called the politician a racist and a fascist.

Troy Pope, The Collegian’s editor-in-chief, said that Monday’s editorial was intentionally “riddled with hyperbole” to grab students’ attention. The article received so much attention that it crashed The Collegian’s website.

Tuesday’s clarification was a decision made by students and not influenced by university officials, Pope said.

“After a lot of hateful responses, it was clear (readers) didn’t understand and assumed it was a news piece because it was on the front page,” he said. “We knew we’d get heat for it, and we’re dealing with that, but also there’s an outpouring of support at the same time. And that’s more support than we’ve ever gotten.”

While at least one Fresno State donor has threatened to pull contributions because of the piece, The Collegian also has received offers to buy advertising as a show of support, Pope said.

On Tuesday, Fresno State issued a press release pointing to The Collegian’s “clarifying statement” and stressing the newspaper is a student-financed, student-run publication “but does not represent the views of the university.”

“The newspaper is a learning laboratory for students who aspire to media careers. It provides them the opportunity to learn about the role of the free press and practice at writing a wide range of material, including news stories, features and editorials,” the statement said. “We understand that not all readers will agree with The Collegian editorial, just as viewpoints differ about opinion pieces in other publications.”

The Collegian is overseen by Fresno State’s Mass Communication & Journalism Department, and while university staff members work as advisers to help train students, they have no say in the newspaper’s coverage, said department chair Katherine Adams.

“Most people don’t understand that The Collegian is not the voice of Fresno State. It’s a classroom where students learn the business. They are not edited to be told what to say and are not obligated to show it to us at all,” she said. “In the news business, there are times when a newspaper deals with controversial choices  I think they’ve done a really good job of explaining why they did it. Our role is to guide them through the hailstorm.”

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, which protects students’ First Amendment rights, said Fresno State’s reaction is the right one.

“Federal and state laws come into play when dealing with student publications, making sure that students are the captain of the ship when it comes to editorial content choices. That wall of separation is absolutely essential if students are going to fulfill their watchdog responsibilities,” he said. “You can’t have a free student press if they’re kept on a tight leash by the very people they’re responsible for covering.”

Abigail Hudson, Fresno State’s student body president, said Associated Students Inc., the student government association, has no authority over The Collegian. While she believes it’s student journalists’ right to print what they want, she pointed out that the newspaper is partly funded by student fees and that some students were offended by the editorial.

It used derogatory language and urged students: “Get off your lazy a--es and do something about it, you hipsters.”

“I think that we have a right to freedom of speech and they’re allowed to publish whatever they want, but I don’t think it was necessarily the smartest or most tasteful idea,” Hudson said.

Pope is a student writer at The Bee.

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays

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