Events Triggering This Inquiry
Proposed Guidelines on Confidentiality Policy
The Public Trust and Internal Management at WFDD
The Committee’s Process
Memo from university Vice President Sandra Boyette to university Counsel Leon Corbett
Separate statement by member Michael Curtis
Report to the University Senate on the WFDD Matter
In October 1999, the President of the University Senate appointed an Ad Hoc Committee on WFDD. She asked the committee to inquire into events at public radio station WFDD during September 1999 and to report to the University Senate with proposals for avoiding such events in the future. This report contains our recommendations and our description of the events that led to this report.
The recommendations involve two subjects. One group of recommendations talks about the need to control the use of any “confidentiality” obligations of WFDD employees that limit debate on matters of public concern. A second group deals with the need to structure the work within WFDD to recognize the stake of the public—and not just the university—in all the work of the station.
Why did we focus on these two areas for recommendations? President Hearn appointed another faculty committee to work on related issues, the Faculty Interim Advisory Committee for WFDD; our committee tried to avoid duplication of their fine efforts. The Advisory Committee has addressed questions related to the editorial policies of WFDD, and the issue of “external governance” (who within the University administration is best situated to supervise the work of the radio station). Our committee has tried to identify different aspects of the problem that have not yet received enough attention.
Part I of the report describes the events at the radio station that led to the controversy. Without knowing what happened at WFDD in the Fall of 1999, a reader cannot understand our recommendations that are designed to prevent the same thing from happening in the future.
Part II of the report recommends limits on the university’s use of “confidentiality” obligations among employees of WFDD. We believe that WFDD employees should be free to speak publicly about any station policy or decision that touches on a matter of public concern. While it may be appropriate to require the employees to discuss the matter internally at the outset, ultimately they should be free to start a public debate on the question.
Part III of the report addresses possible changes in the internal work environment at WFDD. Our recommendations focus on the distinctive obligations of a “public” radio station. Editorial decisions about the news should happen in the light of this commitment to the public. Through training and experience of reporters and news supervisors, through public pronouncements from the university, and through the regular involvement of a community resource board, constituencies outside the university should remain at the heart of news decisions at WFDD.
Part IV of this report describes the actions we took when gathering background information and formulating our recommendations. In a concluding section, we offer some observations about free speech in a university environment and speculate on why this controversy has touched off such sharp debate.
I. Events Triggering this Inquiry
September 8-10, 1999
On September 7, an Ad Hoc Committee of Wake Forest University’s Board of Trustees issued a statement dealing with the use of university facilities to perform same-gender union ceremonies. A copy of that statement is attached as an appendix to this report. On September 8, the university issued a news release describing the trustee’s statement. Vice President for Advancement Sandra Boyette held a meeting to instruct her staff to follow usual procedures for press releases, namely that Kevin Cox releases them to the media. Cox was told to limit his statements about the Trustee’s request to the university’s news release and not to comment or elaborate on the statement. Boyette also mentioned that President Hearn would be out of the office that day and would not be available for comment.
According to Boyette, Linda Ward, the Station Manager for WFDD, was present at that meeting. She asked Boyette at the end of the meeting how WFDD should treat the Trustees’ statement, and whether she should tell reporters that nobody was available for interviews. Boyette says that she replied along these lines: “I know that WFDD does not editorialize, but to be certain that we don’t interpret this statement in any way other than what it says here, I wouldn’t try to do lots of interviews about the statement. The church officials just got it this morning, and they may not be ready to discuss it. I would just stick very close to the statement.”
Ward remembers events differently and says that she was not at the meeting. She recalls receiving instructions from Boyette only in the form of a voice mail. The message instructed her to use the Trustees’ statement “as it is” and “not do extra reporting or interviews.” Boyette, Ward and Paul Brown, the Program Director for WFDD, say that they were not aware of any previous attempts by the administration to limit news coverage.
According to Ward, Brown did not object to the instructions. He delivered the message to the news staff. However, on receiving the instruction from Brown, the news staff protested. Considering it unusual, inappropriate, and unprofessional, the journalists nevertheless honored the request that day. Brown then reported to Ward that the staff objected strongly to her enforcement of Boyette’s request. He asked if she were prepared to lose staff members. Ward says that she replied, “Well, if they do [resign], so be it.” Brown remembers her saying that she “did not care” if the staff members stayed or went. News staffers asked Ward to allow them to report to listeners that the University had limited their coverage. Ward refused this request.
Brown reported that when he objected to news restrictions, Ward also told him that “there should be more restrictions on the media,” that “sometimes NPR opens up stories too much,” and that “this sort of thing might happen again from time to time.” Ward does not recall making these statements.
“It was quite clear,” Brown said, that the University would fire people who disobeyed the request. Michelle Johnson, the station’s News Director, asked Ward what would happen if the news staff refused to comply. Johnson remembered Ward replying, “Somebody could lose their job.” Ward’s recollection was that she answered, “I don’t know, perhaps somebody could lose their job.”
Various members of the news staff recall asking Ward if they could protest the news restriction to Boyette. Ward only remembers such a request from Reporter Mike Janssen. Everyone agrees that Ward said they could approach Boyette if they wanted; news staffers remember that Ward also said “but it won’t do any good.” Ward denies making this latter statement. However, all agree that Ward said she would not support a reversal of the earlier decision. According to Janssen, during his meeting with Ward on Friday the 10th, she told him that “we are a Wake Forest representative.” Ward suggested that Janssen go back to reporting and that “this needs to be over.” Janssen responded that it was not over. Janssen also reports that Ward asked, “Is Michelle still stirring things up down there?” After talking to Ward, most of the staff abandoned any attempts to protest the order.
The day after the initial events, Wake Forest Baptist Church issued a response to the Trustees’ statement. Brown decided not to report the response. Ward says she was surprised to learn that fact, since she thought it was not within the restriction that had been imposed. Boyette also says that her instructions to limit coverage did not apply to the church’s response the next day. Brown says that he did not understand the instructions as limited in that way.
Janssen said that he understood from Ward that the restriction had been prompted by the Board of Trustees. Later, Janssen contacted John Medlin, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, to ask him if the Board had requested the restriction of WFDD. Medlin responded that he thought this was very unlikely and that he didn’t approve of such restrictions. He did say that it was possible that the Trustee committee did not want its statement “interpreted.”
When a third party asked Brown if the news restriction could be mentioned to a Winston-Salem Journal reporter, Brown did not object. The reporter then contacted Brown, Johnson, and Janssen. At some point before speaking for attribution to the press, Janssen made an unsuccessful attempt to contact Boyette, who was unavailable. The Journal reporter also called Boyette. Through this call, Boyette learned for the first time of the news staff’s discontent over the restriction of coverage and that the story had been made public. The Winston-Salem Journal then published the story September 9th with a fuller version on the 11th.
Week of September 13
Beginning on Monday, September 13, Brown, Johnson, and Janssen were each called in for an individual meeting with Boyette. Ward and Jim Ferrell were also present in these three meetings. According to Brown, Boyette “chastised” him for speaking to the newspaper without informing either Ward or Boyette, and for allowing other staff members to speak to the media instead of going to her. Brown and Boyette both report her saying that she was disappointed in his lack of leadership in not coming to her. All the parties agree that Boyette’s major concern was their having spoken to the media rather than first coming to her.
The substance of Boyette’s complaints to Michelle Johnson and Mike Janssen were essentially those she raised with Brown. Johnson said that in her meeting, Boyette gave her a “tongue-lashing.” The station had an existing editorial policy, “News Objectives and Practices,” on file in Boyette’s office (which Johnson read in full to Boyette at their meeting), and Johnson told Boyette in this meeting that she and Ward had violated the policy. Boyette disagreed. Boyette also announced her intention to develop a new editorial policy. Johnson understood that this new policy would restructure the news service so that the news staff reported to Ward, rather than to her and Brown. Boyette says that she neither demoted Johnson nor implied that she was demoted. Whatever the scope of the new arrangement, it was never implemented.
In Janssen’s meeting, according to him, Boyette said that she and Linda Ward were the “editors” at WFDD, and that Janssen’s expectations of full freedom as a reporter were unrealistic. Boyette noted, Janssen recalled, that “this sort of thing happens all the time at other places.” She told Janssen that she was disappointed in him as an alumnus and as an employee. Boyette recalls telling Janssen that it was common for publishers to govern content when covering themselves in the news. Boyette later said that she was concerned that the radio station would be seen as an official Wake Forest University voice.
Boyette required all three news staffers to keep the meetings confidential on the grounds that they were personnel matters. For example, Boyette told Brown that speaking about his meeting with Boyette to anyone except his wife would constitute a breach of contract and would be immediate grounds for dismissal. These confidentiality obligations went beyond the contents of the personnel meetings. According to Johnson and Brown, Boyette told news staffers that professional matters related to WFDD were “confidential information” and that, in the future, “any unauthorized discussion” of them with the news media or anyone outside the university was “grounds for immediate dismissal.” Before this time, none of the WFDD staffers were aware of a policy of strict confidentiality on university matters.
Boyette told Brown that she intended to relieve him of supervision of the news staff, which would thereafter report to Ward. Brown’s salary, title as Program Director, and other duties would continue. Boyette sent a letter to this effect to Brown. However, Boyette’s order never went into effect. Within a few days, Brown’s attorney convinced the University not to change any job duties without consulting him. Brown requested and was given a paid leave of absence on September 27. Several weeks later, Brown was informed that he had the opportunity to return to the station with his responsibilities intact.
After news reports of Boyette’s request to limit coverage appeared, Boyette wrote in a letter to the University community on September 16, “I regret the confusion that grew from good intent to ensure the station’s neutrality…. I do not condone censorship.” On September 29, she apologized to an open meeting of the University Senate for “my decision that inserted me into an editorial process” and said the news staff could cover the story freely. She also said, “No one has been fired and no one will be fired or punished.” Soon afterward, Boyette attended a meeting of the College Faculty to discuss the matter and apologized to that group, as well.
As a consequence of this controversy, Michelle Johnson, News Director of WFDD, retained an attorney and resigned on October 19th. Paul Brown, Program Director of WFDD, retained an attorney, went on paid leave, and resigned on October 28. Although Brown says the university tried to negotiate a standard confidentiality clause in his termination agreement order, he refused. Michael Janssen, news reporter, resigned on November 4.
President Thomas Hearn appointed an Interim Faculty Advisory Committee to advise Boyette. The Interim Faculty Advisory Committee made four recommendations. First, they urged the University to affirm WFDD’s complete independence in editorial decisions and news reporting. Second, they recommended that the station, as an independent unit of the University, should be removed from the Office of University Advancement and be placed in the Office of the Provost. The same principle of separation of fundraising and news functions, they said, should be followed within the organizational structure of the radio station. Third, while WFDD’s existing editorial policy is adequate and does not require revision, the University needs to develop a clear policy regarding its relationship to the station. Fourth, the committee called for the station and the Provost to establish a Community Advisory Board of faculty and community representatives to advise the station and the Provost on editorial and programming matters.
On October 25, President Hearn announced that he was moving supervision of the station to the Office of the Provost and assigning Associate Provost Sam Gladding to oversee the station. Thus, the University has accomplished the faculty committee’s second recommendation and is taking steps to implement the third and fourth. Gladding has been gathering information with a view to establishing policies to assure WFDD’s independence. WFDD news staffers were not informed by any of their supervisors of Boyette’s apology, of the appointment of the Interim Faculty Committee, or of the committee’s subsequent recommendations.
II. Proposed Guidelines on Confidentiality Policy
Our first set of recommendations grow out of what WFDD employees were told during these events about their obligations to keep confidences. Sandra Boyette told Brown, Johnson and Janssen during their meetings in the week of September 13 that they could not discuss what was said during the meeting with anyone other than their families. Violations of this rule, they were told, would be grounds for firing. In addition, Brown was told that in the future he could not discuss professional “WFDD matters” with anyone outside the university. Again, a failure to comply with this rule would be grounds for firing.
There is an important connection between confidentiality obligations such as these and the atmosphere of free debate we hope to encourage. If in the future the news staffers are unable to exercise their journalistic judgment about a news story because of pressure, coming from inside or outside the station, what are their options? Of course they will want to discuss the situation with their colleagues and supervisors. But if those discussions are not fruitful, they should also be able to include others in the conversation. If people outside their “chain of command” ask what is happening, journalists need to be free to tell the full truth.
We are concerned that if future restrictions on journalistic judgment at WFDD are framed as “administrative” matters, and are enforced through “personnel” actions, then they will not become a part of any public debate. They could go unnoticed.
As far as we know, there is no general university policy regarding the confidentiality obligations of its employees. There are, of course, limitations on who may speak on behalf of the university. But as for limitations on what university employees say publicly as individuals, lawyers in the University Counsel’s office tell us that there are no general rules. Supervisors might impose some confidentiality obligations in particular cases (which is what happened in this case), but they do so without the guidance of any general policies.
We start with the axiom that “sunshine is the best disinfectant.” We therefore recommend that the university endorse the following general principles concerning the confidentiality obligations of employees at WFDD:
- Employees at WFDD should be free to comment publicly on decisions that could have some impact on the content of broadcasts. They should suffer no adverse job consequences for speaking publicly on these questions.
- An employee’s public comments should deal with issues of public concern and should be consistent with journalistic ethics.
- The university might decide to insist on a brief period of internal debate about decisions at the radio station. An employee would be free to raise the matter in a public forum only after the supervisors of the radio station have had the chance to discuss and reconsider the issue. The length of time necessary for the internal debate should be short, giving due regard for the need to report the news in a timely manner.
- Some explanation may be useful for the limits these standards place on the “sunshine” principle. It is proper for station employees who are concerned about interference with journalistic judgment to raise their concerns first with their superiors. That gives the University a chance to correct any mistake or any misunderstanding. Such a first step can bring a prompt end to improper restrictions on journalistic freedom. A policy of this sort can also avoid unnecessary embarrassment for the University and the station and can avoid breakdowns in communication. Indeed, such an approach was the first one considered by station employees in this case.
When staff members believe a serious mistake has been made, even after they have raised the issue with the person or persons in ultimate control, they should be free to make their complaints public without fear of retaliation. The public has a legitimate interest in how news and editorial decisions are crafted. The occasions in which such disputes become public will probably be quite rare.
Because of the time-sensitive nature of news, a short time period should be set to consider and resolve such disputes internally. We considered trying to specify the amount of time needed, but concluded that the answer will vary with the circumstances. Instead of a firm time limit, we believe that an employee who raises these disputes publicly should also be able to reveal publicly the amount of time that passed during internal discussion of the issue.
III. The Public Trust and Internal Management at WFDD
Wake Forest University operates WFDD as a public trust. The Federal Radio Act of 1927 states that broadcasters must operate in “the public interest, convenience and necessity.” As a member of National Public Radio, WFDD represents to its listeners that the station will make special efforts to serve the public. Wake Forest holds its broadcast license to serve the public, not the university.
The funding sources at WFDD for fiscal 1999 included several non-university constituencies. Public money and listener support accounts for more than one-half of the income. Additionally, corporate sponsors account for approximately thirty percent of the station’s budget. According to estimates, Wake Forest University provides about twenty percent of the station’s revenue.
The governance and management of WFDD should reflect the claims of these various constituencies, as well as honor the public trust invested in the station. Consequently, the station should arrange all its work to ensure routine input from Wake Forest University (as licensee and financial supporter), corporate sponsors, and individual supporters who make both small and large contributions. In many public radio stations, the balancing of the various interests of the stakeholders is the responsibility of the station manager. The experience, skills, and orientation of the station manager and the program director are crucial to maintaining the health and credibility of the station.
Consistent with this philosophy regarding the operation of WFDD—a National Public Radio station—we recommend that the university take several actions. Some of our recommendations (numbers 1 and 6) call for public university commitments to the notion that it operates WFDD not to further its own interests, but to further the public interest. High-level institutional commitments of this sort will reinforce an atmosphere within the station of journalistic independence.
Other recommendations (numbers 2 and 3) call for a community resource board to have some specific and regular involvement in the direction of station policy. We are pleased to see Sam Gladding and the university administration making progress on this question. We hope our recommendations can reinforce that trend, and begin a discussion about ways to make the board a regular influence on station practices rather than a sporadic one. Perhaps the board can take a role akin to a mediator in some future disputes. It appears to us that mediation may have avoided some of the lingering misunderstandings among those involved in the events last September.
Finally, some of our recommendations (numbers 4 and 5) relate to the qualifications and training of WFDD employees who are involved in news programming. Whether through education, past job experience, or some other form of training, every person with responsibility for news broadcasting should be imbued with the traditions and spirit of independent journalism, and of public radio more specifically. Together, these actions are designed to sustain a work environment at WFDD that will make it easier to serve the public as a whole and not merely one of its constituents, the university.
- The Wake Forest University Trustees should adopt and publicize a resolution that reaffirms its commitment to operating WFDD with editorial integrity, defined as “the responsible application by professional practitioners of a free and independent decision making process ultimately accountable to the needs and interests of all citizens.” The University should assure all listeners (and citizens) that station management has “the editorial freedom necessary to provide its services effectively and that the mission of providing such high quality programming remains paramount.” (Quotes are from University of South Florida, Policies and Procedures Manual.)
- Appropriate officials of Wake Forest University should establish a Community Resource Board that includes representatives of station listeners and contributors, university faculty, and others with knowledge and experience in journalism and public radio. This Board should regularly advise the station management and provide other assistance in upholding the public commitment of the station and its operations. The Board should be involved in all employment decisions concerning persons responsible for station management.
- WFDD’s station management, the Community Resource Board, and the appropriate university administrators should carry through with current plans to use the services of a nationally-recognized consultant with experience in broadcast journalism and public radio to review the operations and policies of the station. The consultant should also address the qualifications and job descriptions required for those who develop and supervise news programming.
- The University should rebuild WFDD news staff with professional journalists. It should strengthen its coverage of local news.
- The person (or people) responsible for news programming and news policy decisions at WFDD should be selected through a national search for the best possible applicants. Station personnel responsible for news programming should have significant training and/or experience in broadcast journalism; should be aware of and sensitive to public radio’s tradition and culture of balanced and objective reporting; should be committed to journalistic freedom; and should understand and support journalistic ethics, such as the principles set forth in PRI/NPR “Independence and Integrity: A Handbook for Public Journalists.”
- Regrettably, WFDD has lost three professional journalists in recent months who demonstrated a strong, unwavering commitment to freedom of the press and the highest journalistic ethics. The university should recognize these journalists, in some public and official manner, for defending important free speech principles. These three employees were contributing to the welfare of the station as well as the welfare of the university and the public by their actions.
The university has already taken some actions to correct the problems that became evident during the WFDD controversy. Upon the separate recommendations of Vice President Boyette and the Faculty Interim Advisory Committee, the President has separated the radio station from the Office of University Advancement to avoid possible conflicts of interest. Sam Gladding is exploring policies to protect the station’s news operation from improper interference. We hope that WFDD and the campus atmosphere for free expression will, in the long run, emerge from this controversy stronger than before.
IV. The Committee’s Process
The Senate can only judge the accuracy, completeness and fairness of the historical account and the recommendations in this report if it knows something about the process we followed. Because we had more complete access to the views of some participants than of others, we explain in some detail how we collected our information.
After the September 29 Senate meeting with Sandra Boyette, the President of the Senate appointed this Ad Hoc Committee to inquire further into what happened in September and to make recommendations to prevent any similar events in the future. At our organizational meeting on October 11, we set our two-part agenda (described in the Introduction) and decided to seek interviews with the participants in the September events: Sandra Boyette, Paul Brown, Paulette Cott, Mike Janssen, Michelle Johnson, and Linda Ward. We also planned to interview Wayne King for a distinguished journalist’s perspective on these events and to discuss the feasibility of any recommendations we might propose. Before any interviews began, we contacted Sandra Boyette (who at that point was still the supervisor for WFDD) to explain our plans and to ask to meet with her about our two primary agenda items. Ms. Boyette declined to meet with us because she had already met on two occasions with faculty groups and because she thought our questions were best answered by whoever would ultimately become the supervisor of the station.
University Counsel Leon Corbett asked to meet with committee chair Ron Wright to discuss the committee’s agenda. He wanted the committee to understand that the threat of litigation at that time placed extra limits on Boyette’s ability to discuss this matter. On October 28, committee members Wright and Curtis met with Corbett and Donna Hamilton, an attorney in the office of University Counsel. We discussed the now-diminished threat of litigation. Hamilton also explained past practices involving confidentiality obligations of university employees. As for the committee’s efforts to gather facts, Corbett asked to attend the committee’s interview with Linda Ward.
Interviews with Johnson, Brown, Janssen, and King went ahead as scheduled. Johnson, Janssen, and Brown all spoke to the committee after they had resigned from their positions at WFDD. Committee members present at these interviews took notes, and the “coordinator” for each interview drafted notes for the entire committee’s use. The coordinator for the Paul Brown interview taped the conversation and transcribed the tape as a basis for the committee’s later work.
In the days prior to the scheduled Ward interview, Corbett contacted the committee about the tape of the Paul Brown interview. He asked to review the tape before the Ward interview. We declined for two reasons. First, none of the other people who talked to our committee had received documents in preparation for their interviews. We wanted to treat all the interviewees alike, and we wanted to get their independent recollections about what happened. Second, the transcript of the Brown interview contained some discussion that was not strictly germane to our committee’s work, including some personal information and observations.
Paulette Cott, who originally agreed to talk to us, changed her mind shortly before the appointed date. Similarly, Linda Ward canceled her scheduled interview. Instead, Corbett and Gladding offered to meet with us at that time. At this meeting, we described informally to Gladding the sort of information we were receiving in our interviews.
During this same meeting, Corbett suggested that some interviewees were reluctant to talk to us because they believed that our committee was conducting an intimidating and unfair investigation. He said that our refusal to give him access to the Brown tape contributed to that perception. Corbett added several other reasons for characterizing our investigation in this way, including Wright’s prosecutorial background, the treatment of Boyette at the September 29 meeting, and Wright’s interview with Brown and his attorney prior to the September 29 meeting.
The Ad Hoc Committee deliberated about Corbett’s concerns for some time. We do not share those concerns. The Senate, if it considers this whole dispute relevant to its debate, may find useful the following background information about the September meeting with Paul Brown. Brown contacted the Senate President the week of September 20 and asked to meet with the Senate Executive Committee (this ad hoc committee did not yet exist) to provide further information about the WFDD incident. The Senate had passed a resolution on this subject on September 15, a few days earlier. Wright attended that meeting as a member of the Executive Committee. Brown’s attorney appeared at the meeting unexpectedly. He did not ask any questions or try to obtain any facts. The attorney came to the meeting to assure Brown from time to time that he was free to answer the committee’s questions without being fired, under the terms of a recently-negotiated agreement with the university. Brown gave the committee new information about the incident that raised new concerns, so the committee decided to call a special meeting on September 29 to discuss the matter publicly. None of the Executive Committee members knew anything about the incidents Brown was describing, and could not have compromised the university in any later litigation. As we see it, in light of the limited role of Brown’s attorney, it was reasonable for the Executive Committee members to proceed with the September meeting.
Our ad hoc committee met again on November 15 to review the information we had collected and to begin work on a report. By that time, Corbett had suggested that Ward would provide us with her views about the September events if Corbett could be present and if Curtis were the only committee member present. He indicated that Boyette would also provide information to the committee through this mechanism. Although we would have preferred to speak to everyone on similar terms, with several committee members asking questions and taking notes, we agreed to go forward on these terms. Curtis spoke with Ward and Boyette on November 18, created notes about the conversations after they occurred, and relayed his notes to the committee.
The committee completed a preliminary discussion draft of its report on January 14. We distributed it to Corbett, Gladding, and every person we interviewed, asking for comments about any errors or omissions. As part of her commentary on this draft, Sandra Boyette delivered a copy of a memorandum she wrote on October 25 to record her memories of the September events. She asked that we include her memorandum as a part of the report. It is one of the few available documents bearing on these events, and it appears as an appendix.
When an institution undergoes the kind of controversy that has overwhelmed our campus in the last few months, an opportunity to learn some essential lessons arises. As educators, it is our responsibility to use the situation constructively. In our view, this incident struck a nerve with the faculty because it raised issues larger than radio station management. It embodied a struggle that is happening on university campuses everywhere: the uneasy co-existence of “corporate” methods of managing risks alongside “academic” habits of speaking and operating.
The instruction to limit coverage precipitated a clash between two views of the role of the journalists at WFDD that we might label a “ownership” view and a “stakeholder” view. The view apparently embraced initially by the Vice President was that this was not a matter of censorship or free speech, but that she was simply acting as an editor. Publishers are often involved when the publisher itself is part of the story.
By this view, the freedom of speech that takes place on radio news merely belongs to those who own and control the radio station, not to the journalists or the public. Private enterprise often follows this model. When the interests of the publisher are threatened, the publisher may restrict press coverage to protect its interests. For example, Rupert Murdoch, the press baron, apparently decided against carrying the BBC News on his stations because of its criticism of human rights policy in China. Murdoch wanted greater access to the Chinese market for his movies and soap operas. By this model, freedom of the press, as A.J. Liebling quipped, extends to those who own one.
Opposed to this formal ownership model of free speech is a different view of the legitimate role of a free press — a stakeholder model of free expression, inspired by the role of a free press in a democratic society and by journalistic professionalism. Under this model, the press enriches and informs democratic decisions. Freedom of speech is a shared right in which journalists and the public participate. To prevent a journalist from fully reporting a major matter of public concern, because of publisher interests unrelated to the larger public interest, raises serious free speech concerns. In this case, the WFDD journalists believed their integrity and professionalism—and ultimately the public good—were threatened by the restriction.
As we evaluate the events of September at WFDD, we embrace the “stakeholder” model of free speech as the proper one for a university operating a radio station in the interest of the public. A university is not a private, profit-making corporation, with stockholders whose main concerns are economic. Like the public radio station it houses, Wake Forest is a non-profit public trust. What has occurred on our campus violated certain “givens” about what a university should be: a place where freedom of thought and expression thrive. Universities exist not only to transmit knowledge, but also “to interpret, explore, and expand knowledge by testing the old and proposing the new” (AAUP Redbook 37). This mission guides us both within and outside the classroom. Wake Forest has the responsibility to maintain a campus climate where debate can occur openly, respectfully and with dignity.
A university provides the place in our society where the circulation of thought is paramount, where the intellect is disciplined for its own sake. As Cardinal Newman asserted in his seminal essay “The Idea of a University,” a liberal education gives the student a sharpened consciousness of his or her own opinions and judgments, “a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them, and a force in urging them…. It teaches the student to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant.” In sum, it inspires ethical character. The university cultivates and purifies the mind, trains good citizens and raises the intellectual tone of society. The duty to work toward these goals is what, as a public trust, Wake Forest owes to its members.
We, as members of our university community, believe in this mission and must zealously defend it if it is undermined. Free speech, as the AAUP Redbook asserts, “is not simply an aspect of the educational enterprise to be weighed against other desirable ends. It is the very precondition of the academic enterprise itself.” A university that does not function on the very principles of freedom, openness and tolerance that it purports to teach cannot succeed and flourish.
Ronald Wright, Sarah Watts, Gale Sigal, Jack Fleer
Michael Curtis, Allin Cottrell, Eric Carlson, Stephen Boyd
Wake Forest University Board of Trustees Report of Special Committee
It is an unfortunate circumstance that Wake Forest University has been asked by the Wake Forest Baptist Church — an independent congregation with no formal ties to the University — to render a decision regarding the use of University facilities in which to perform a same-gender union ceremony.
Wake Forest University is an academic institution and not an ecclesiastical body empowered or authorized to render judgments on matters of faith and practice. It is noted, however, that of the Christian churches whose place it is to render liturgical decisions, and who are currently studying this controversial issue, almost no tradition, Protestant or Catholic, has chosen to sanction these services. Baptist churches, clearly and all but universally, oppose the practice at issue. Although Wake Forest University no longer has any governance relationship with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, the University honors and respects its Baptist heritage. Since the University is not prepared to render an ecclesiastical judgment, there is no compelling reason not to respect the prevailing collective wisdom of the Christian church regarding this question.
Although there remains division and uncertainty among the Wake Forest Baptist Church’s own membership about the position of the Church regarding the proposed ceremony, it is not the intention of the University to restrict the practice of the congregation whatever its ultimate decision may be or to interfere with the content of the church services. The University does not, however, want to become an involuntary participant or be perceived to have approved such practice, by having its facilities used for this purpose. Accordingly, we recommend that the Administration of the University ask the Wake Forest Baptist Church to refrain from using the University facilities for such purpose.
Memo from university Vice President Sandra Boyette to university Counsel Leon Corbett
TO: Leon Corbett
FROM: Sandra Boyette
DATE: October 25, 1999
Here is my recollection of the event on September 8 regarding WFDD.
I had met on September 7 with the trustee ad hoc committee, who had given me the trustee statement responding to the request of Wake Forest Baptist Church. I knew from that meeting that Dr. Hearn was to meet early the next morning with officials at the church to give them the statement. I also knew that we would release the statement to the news media after Dr. Hearn had met with the church. I further knew that Dr. Hearn would be out of the office on the afternoon of September 8 and probably not available for interviews.
On September 8, I gave the statement to Kevin Cox, director of media relations, and asked him to distribute it to the news media. Linda Ward was meeting with us at the same time, and I gave her a copy for WFDD. (Normally, Kevin would distribute to all media sources but since Linda was there for a staff meeting, I gave her the copy.)
I told Kevin that I thought it was important that he not try to interpret the statement (nor was I going to do that), because neither of us had been privy to the committee’s work on this document. I also told him that I did not think the President would be available for interviews on the statement that day.
Linda heard this conversation and asked a question or two that I remember like this: “So we should just give this statement? Should I tell the staff that no one is available for interviews?” I said, “I know that WFDD does not editorialize, but to be certain that we don’t interpret the statement in any way other than what it says here, I wouldn’t try to do lots of interviews about the statement. The church officials just got it this morning, and they may not be ready to discuss it. I would just stick very close to the statement.” I told her I was pretty certain that the President was going to be traveling in the afternoon. She also asked about the timing, something like “Is this ready for release right now?” I told her that it was ready to be released.
(The underlined clause and sentence are the ones that I remember most vividly.)
Kevin went ahead with faxing and otherwise distributing the trustee statement to our standard list of media outlets.
Separate and concurring statement by Michael Curtis, member of the Ad Hoc Committee, Feb. 3, 2000
I fully join in the committee report but add a few words.
Vice President Boyette’s instructions to WFDD were not intended to suppress free discussion. They were intended to carry out a policy of not elaborating on the statement given to Vice President Boyette from the trustee committee. The idea, as I understand it, was that the University not issue official comment on the statement issued by the trustees’ committee in reference to blessing a same sex union in the chapel. But the effect of the instruction to WFDD — basically not to pursue the story independently — was inevitably to suppress free discussion of the same sex blessing issue on WFDD. Indeed, the chilling effect of the instruction even dampened discussion that the Vice President and the station manager had not intended of affect-the response of the church to the trustee’s committee statement.
The news coverage direction to WFDD seems to have been almost an accident. Apparently someone asked the Vice President about the no comment mandate and WFDD, and she only then transmitted her instruction limiting reporting. It seems to have been an unfortunate afterthought.
The initial response of the WFDD journalists to the order limiting coverage was that they should bring their objections to the Vice President. They (correctly in my view) saw the restriction as a crucial free expression issue. Unfortunately, while this course was not barred to them, they received no encouragement and abandoned the idea. Instead, journalists went public. The first inkling that the Vice President had of a problem was when a reporter from the Winston Salem Journal called her about it. As a result, she had no opportunity to reconsider and revise her instruction in light of the very serious objections by the journalists.
I know of one other earlier case in which the Vice President is was sensitive to issues of freedom of discussion and to the free speech concerns of her staff. In the WFDD matter the Vice President made a hasty mistake, but one that might have been quickly corrected if she had had an opportunity to reflect on the reporter’s concerns before the storm of controversy broke. It is also true, of course, that the problem might have been avoided if the journalists themselves had been consulted before the instruction limiting their coverage was issued to them.
Once the Vice President learned that the problem with her instruction had been raised first in the press and not with her, she was naturally chagrined, just as the journalists were naturally outraged at the instruction they had received about limiting coverage. In this highly emotional atmosphere, both the journalists and the Vice President probably had difficulty in understanding the valid concerns of the other. At this stage a mediator skilled in conflict resolution might have helped each to understand the other’s legitimate concerns. A narrowly tailored solution might have been reached acceptable to all. One such solution could be that if such problems surfaced again, the journalist would first have informed the Vice President and gone public only after the Vice President had a chance to change policy — if she decided that was appropriate. Of course, if mediation does not produce a result satisfactory to all parties, they retain all the options they would have had without it. It allows parties to attempt to craft win-win solutions. Instead, the meeting with the journalists and the injunction of silence imposed on them seriously detracted from the positive steps the University was taking to correct the problem caused by the WFDD controversy.
The suppression of discussion on WFDD was brief. The University has taken steps to correct the problem and Vice President Boyette’s herself took a leading role in initiating those steps. While the committee appointed by the President to deal with the WFDD problem recognized the important freedom of discussion issues involved, the University administration has not spoken directly to the issue. Perhaps in light of all the corrective steps it has taken, the administration thinks a further statement is unnecessary. Perhaps it differs from the view we take of the freedom of discussion issue. Nor has it yet dealt with the whistle-blower problem.
Good people make mistakes and forgiveness is the appropriate response. But it is also appropriate, even when inadvertent incursions are made on basic principles of freedom of discussion, for people to point out as clearly and as forcefully as they can, the basic issues involved. If others disagree, we should attempt to discuss our differences in an atmosphere of charity and respect.
Though it was brief and not undertaken with sinister motives, I find it heartening that the University Community responded so strongly and negatively to the suppression of expression at WFDD. Of course, the suppression at WFDD was not a violation of the letter of the First Amendment, which has been construed to apply only to governmental action. Of course, the journalists, like other Wake Forest employees were presumably free to express their personal views of the chapel controversy in a letter to the editor of the local paper or the Old Gold and Black . What they were not free-for a short time — to do was to pursue the story as any journalist not under restraint should. Of course, the dimensions of journalistic freedom raise complex questions. But the principle that reporting of the chapel controversy should not be limited in the interest of having the University speak on the issue with only one voice is simple and clear. As I have very recently learned once again, however, principles that seem simple and clear to me may not be at all apparent to those with different backgrounds.
Though free speech on our campus is not a technical legal question, our understanding of the issue can be enriched by the best ideas developed in the courts. As courts have suggested, liberty of expression in an appropriate place should not be suppressed on the claim it can be exercised elsewhere. Another key free speech concept is the idea of a forum, for as the places to which freedom of expression applies shirk, so does the practical liberty.
Though the suppression did not violate a narrow technical understanding of the First Amendment, the suppression violated the spirit of free expression for which that amendment stands and as the response shows, it violated a strong popular understanding on campus of the meaning of free speech. In the end, people have the liberties they demand. The struggle is worthwhile even when the violations are limited, brief, and unintentional. (Practically, throughout the history of free speech, popular ideas of free speech have been important in molding and sustaining freedom of expression, even when courts have viewed the expression as unprotected. Indeed, non legal conceptions have often been ahead of the court and only later codified as law.) The question raised at Wake Forest was what sort of protections for free expression we will have-what sort of unwritten guarantees shall we have at Wake Forest?
Freedom of speech is a faith, a faith that in the long run the best understanding is likely to come from diverse perspectives. Free speech requires places where it can take place. Decisions to ban free speech from what would otherwise be appropriate places limit free speech. So a campus devoted to free speech must have facilities that can be used for the expression of a wide variety of viewpoints, including some that a strongly rejected by the majority. In a limited way, news reporting on WFDD is one such place.
I will illustrate this point with a hypothetical case-not a real one. If Wake Forest, for example, were to ban ministers from blessing same sex unions of gay or lesbian students on campus (and it seems we have no such policy), Wake Forest would be suppressing a powerful statement of a point of view-that gays and lesbians are also God’s children and that people of faith accept their unions. That most churches or the majority disagree with that viewpoint and refuse to bless such unions should not justify banning them on campus-if we wish to have a place where freedom of expression flourishes. Since freedom of expression is a prerequisite for an open democratic society and to wise decision making, it is not appropriate to limit it by majority vote. To do so shrinks alternatives and so deprives the majority of an informed choice. People cannot fully evaluate alternatives without full discussion. Nor should the liberty of speech be curtailed because the gay couple remains free to write a letter to the Old Gold and Black or even give a speech on the subject on campus.
In these hypothetical facts, the University could have a strong reason for the suppression-the desire to avoid the impression that the University endorses such a point of view or to avoid confusion on that point. But here again a principle borrowed from free speech law can be useful. There is a more narrowly tailored way for the University to avoid confusion. It can simply announce that as a place devoted to broad freedom of expression, it does not endorse all the particular expressions that flourish here, including ones about homosexual unions. The explanation will not be as effective in avoiding confusion as a ban would be, but because of the interest in free expression the statement should have to do.
The importance of these principles of freedom of expression and of the defense of them that occurred at Wake Forest does not depend on seeing the departure from them as intentional or motivated by a sinister design. Instead, as the University’s response so far indicates, I think the principles of freedom of expression on campus are principles which all involved share. The controversy was over how these shared principles should apply to this set of facts. Such issues are worked out in public discussion and protest, sometimes vehement. But we can and must celebrate the protest without demonizing those who had a different understanding and without seeing them as acting from evil motives. Our report contains nothing inconsistent with this understanding, and I fully join it.