What’s Official? : Establishing a Doctrine for Recognizing Student Publication Legitimacy

The Campus Journalism Act of 1991 is today one of the most vilified laws of the land. Various political and interest groups – most notably the College Editors Guild of the Philippines – have called for it to be revised, if not downright repealed to be replaced by another, more acceptable law.

The bulk of complaints about this law, now twenty four years in effect, centres on how optional it makes the school’s collection of student publication fees, the source of student publications’ budgets. By invoking the ambiguity of the Act’s wording, many schools have denied student papers of their lifeblood, practically killing them. Other complaints focus on the law’s failure to compel schools to set up a student publication.

The main alternative law currently pending in the lower house is House Bill 4287, passed by representatives from the Kabataan and Bayan Muna Partylists. The bill addresses these main concerns quite explicitly, now making it mandatory to set up a student publication for all schools, and to collect student publication fees to fund them. The bill even addresses some issues faced by different publications across the country, such as the locking of offices to prevent publication staff from working, and defining the limited role of the adviser.

Perhaps most importantly, the bill addresses the CJA’s most serious flaw, its lack of an implementing agency. In the present bill the Commission on Higher Education is given several key mandates with regard to the law, from serving as an investigative and enforcing body, to providing legal assistance to student publications, to even organizing conferences and competitions. CHED has hitherto served these functions only de facto in the absence of a specified agency, and its penalties – concentrated more on accreditation sanctions – have been practically extralegal.

But what the CJA has crucially lacked, and what HB 4287 still fails to address, is the question of what makes a student publication the official student publication of a school. In a campus journalism scene mired by administrative censorship and clampdowns, this is a disaster waiting to happen. The question is at the heart of campus press freedom, and if unanswered schools will continue to have very potent tools for censorship.

In the event that a question of an editorial board’s legitimacy arises, CHED will no doubt be the arbitrating body. But on what bases will it determine the legitimacy of a publication? Will it be the paper the school administration recognizes? Will it be the one the student government chooses? Or will it be the staff the CEGP sides with?

All these options are problematic. For obvious reasons, having a school administration be the sole fount of the publication’s legitimacy is objectionable. What if the staff writes something that the administration objects to? All the administration has to do is recognize an alternate, more amicable staff and proclaim it as the new legitimate publication, refusing to fund the old staff because they do not acknowledge it.

Tying up with the student government is equally problematic. For one thing, in this generation of political apathy it is not unusual for a school to actually have no student government, or for there to be one that is completely under the school administration’s control. And then there is the question of impartiality: even in healthy campus democracies a student government-run publication would be biased, because democratic governments are by nature political. This is something, I must add, which HB 4287 fails to recognize. In my experience in tertiary and graduate school, the healthy clash between a vigilantly critical campus press and a student government determined to accomplish is a recurring and productive scenario.

Using the CEGP as a legitimizing body is even more fraught with difficulties. Most fundamentally, the CEGP is an external body, and they being the source of legitimacy will be tantamount to meddling. The CEGP, being an organization committed to strong ideals, is also a biased organization, and as such the solution will often not be very agreeable to the school administration. Any sole external source of recognition for that matter would be impracticable because it may ferment discontent within the school, whose student may feel alienated from the paper, seeing it as an imposed foreign object.

Clearly, having just one source of legitimacy is problematic.

As such, I propose consensus to be used as basis for any arbitration. In disputes on whether a student publication is official, I propose that the CHED determine the legitimacy of an editorial board as arising from a majority – if not a consensus – of four sources of recognition.

First, a student publication has some legitimacy if it is recognized by the student body. If the question must really be pressed the student body ought to be put to a referendum, although the student government’s recognition may be taken as prima facie approval of the student body. Student recognition is the most important factor for legitimacy, as a publication not acknowledged by its own students is a moot publication.

Then a publication staff can claim legitimacy if it can claim continuity with previously undisputed publication staffs. If the alumni staff members of the publication – or of any previously existing publication in the school – acknowledge a current staff as their legitimate successors, then that current staff can claim to be the official student paper. For this source, the staff has history as its backing. This option however is not available to staffs seeking to establish a paper in a school that has not had one before.

Third, the publication staff can actually seek the recognition of the school administration, preferably the school’s board of trustees. It often happens that an editorial board’s conflict is only with an intermediate level of the administration, such as a conflict with a Dean or a director of Student Affairs. In such cases the opinion of the school’s highest bodies – or actual stake holders – may be directly invoked in the publication’s defence. Of course the bias of such the board of trustees for campus freedom is not a guarantee, so students must practice realpolitik on the matter.

Finally external recognition can be cited. The CEGP can serve to recognize the editorial board’s right to represent the school, although if they refuse a staff the paper can simply walk away and continue to function. Other external engagements, such as representing the school in competitions and conferences, can be cited as evidence of recognized legitimacy. This is the weakest source of recognition however, as papers must fundamentally be recognized first in their schools before they can operate functionally to deal with external parties.

The CHED ought to seek a consensus among these sources of recognition, or if not at least determine which editorial board in question is predominantly recognized among them.

In all cases, however, it will be wise for the editorial boards to manoeuvre and position themselves decisively and prudently. The problem with many idealistic young journalists is that they do not have the cleverness to make their ideals a reality.

School administrations, student bodies, and the CEGP are all human institutions, and as such have their weaknesses. Editorial boards must learn to take advantage of these weaknesses.: in the event, for instance, that the CEGP recognizes them but the administration refuses, they can threaten the administration by pointing out that recognizing another staff would make the school seem unstable, and it would be damaging to the school’ image. Or the staff can ferment student discontent and use it to their advantage.

All this picketing and rallying for campus press freedom will be futile if the proponent representatives of HB 4287 do not manoeuvre the bill into the lower house’s business properly. All of it will be futile if the student journalists themselves do not know how to negotiate – and contend – with their school administrations. ‘Power without principles is empty,’ the British Prime Minister Tony Blair once said, ‘but principles without power are futile.’


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