Free press under attack again: Does anyone care?

When the media exclaims that the free press is under attack once again, too often the resulting response is one of indifference.

Who cares if elected officials meet in questionable circumstances to determine your communities’ future?

Who cares if attempts are being made to “out” anonymous bloggers as a possible means of intimidating the same while silencing their critics?

Who cares if our publicly supported university systems is using reductions in funds to ensure student journalists walk the straight and narrow?

I mean after all, nobody reads newspapers anymore. At least that’s what we read on the Internet.

The censor of public opinion made headlines twice this week in a Memphis metro daily.

The first relates to attorneys representing the Shelby County Commission. the law firm of Baker Donelson filed a subpoena in federal court requesting the names, addresses and phone numbers of anyone who commented on stories about suburban residents wishing to create their own school districts.

While several Shelby County commissioners questioned their attorney’s actions, going so far as deriding it as an attack on free speech, Commissioner Steve Mulroy defended the subpoena claiming the bloggers may also have the ear of Nashville legislators.

Claiming the blogs in question were race related, Mulroy added that if the federal court rules in the commission’s favor, the identities of the bloggers would be safe guarded from the public. Which begs the question – if nobody is going to know the identity of those who comment on public issues, what’s the issue of the getting the names of the public comment?

Let’s call it like it is. Commission attorneys claim suburban districts are trying to discriminate against minority students by carving out white majority districts from the proposed unified system.

The reality is, suburban districts are trying to maintain at least a modicum of their identity by protecting themselves from the education disaster that is the Memphis Public Schools.

Too harsh you say?

According to recent results from the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, 71 percent of Memphis public school students in grads 3-8 struggle to read. Sixty-seven percent aren’t proficient in Algebra, 90 percent levels in Algebra II.

Shelby County student’s scores won’t set the world on fire either, but we think they know that it’s hot.

So what to do? Educate our students of course. Teach them critical thinking. Help them mature into independent, resourceful students, capable of comprehending college curricula.

And then, when that independent, comprehensive thought is placed in print and goes against the grain of a budget committee from your tax-supported campus, pull their funding. That, at least, is what seems to be happening at the Daily Helmsman at the University of Memphis.

Publishing since 1931, the University of Memphis’s student newspaper is facing a questionable future and an extraordinary challenge when the Student Activity Fee Allocation Committee made up of three students and four faculty members cut $25, 000 from their typical $75,000 annual support.

Helmsman supporters have argued the cuts were motivated by those disagreeing with their coverage, including university administrators unhappy about coverage of a pair of campus rapes.

The committee claimed the reduction was simply a reflection of a difficult economy. They cited their budget of $1,568,456., down more than $2 million, was divided among 15 applicants and 13 of those received less.

It is not known if any others faced a 33-percent reduction.

Yet while making the financial argument, allocation committee members repeatedly noted perceived journalistic shortfalls. Committee members claimed the paper failed to cover a presidential candidate forums; haven’t provided timely coverage of campus activities and have failed to provide a campus calendar of events.

Evidently failure to provide such information far outweighed the positives of reporting sex crimes on campus.

Dean of Students Steve Peterson claimed the newspaper wrote too many stories of little relevance or that touched very few students on campus. Some on the committee, he claimed, voted for zero funding for the Helmsman this year.

We wonder if these board members believe a newspaper’s job is to act as campus cheerleader.

Two attacks on free speech in one week. Both attempting to limit information they deem to not fit their personal perceptions.

One day you may read about it on the Internet.

Brian Bloom is the Regional Manager of the Oakland News.