Herhold: Was SCU newspaper censored? – The Mercury News

Anyone who works as a journalist ultimately has to deal with a publisher, even if publisher and journalist are one and the same. Someone has to take the responsibility for what appears online or in print. Someone has to be the adult in the room.

But what if the publisher makes a questionable call, flexing authority to excise legitimate news? That’s the question being debated now on the Santa Clara University campus, where the campus newspaper, the Santa Clara, has accused the university of censorship.

Here’s what happened: At Santa Clara University’s black-tie Golden Circle gala on Jan. 21, John A. and Susan Sobrato, both of the class of 1960, announced a $100 million gift to fund a new 300,000 square-foot building for science, technology, engineering and math.

It was an extraordinarily generous gift — and Sobrato himself said at a news conference on Jan. 24 that he hoped it would transform the university’s position in Silicon Valley.

On Feb. 2, the Santa Clara, a newspaper run by undergraduates, ran an online account of the gift (goo.gl/PDjzXU), an upbeat piece that demonstrated that Sobrato has thought long and hard about the shape and function of the building.

The story did, however, include one critical comment from the noted philanthropist about Santa Clara’s dean of engineering, a dedicated and long-serving man whose background is in mechanical engineering.

“Frankly, we need to have a new dean that’s more connected in the high-tech community,’’ Sobrato was quoted as saying. “And I don’t want to throw stones, but … we need somebody that’s a modern, high-tech entrepreneur.’’

The paper then asked the dean, Godfrey Mungal, for a comment. Mungal pointed out that the school of engineering had used its connection in Silicon Valley to raise its ranking from 21st to 12th in a U.S. News and World Report survey.  He also said that 18 percent of the student body consisted of engineering students. No shabby performance.

A week later, according to the students, the university instructed the newspaper to remove the critical Sobrato quote and response from the story. With misgivings, the editors complied. Sobrato, after all, had made the statement at a news conference attended by other media. And the story had already appeared in print.

The university administration has since explained that it made the request in part because the Sobrato comment was “extraneous’’ to the story of the gift.

“I reviewed the thing from a legal perspective, and it was my opinion that requesting the article be modified was appropriate,’’ said John Ottoboni, the university’s general counsel.

When I called him, Sobrato did not comment for the record. But university administrators have said that he meant nothing derogatory about the dean, whom he has praised.

That’s not the end of the story. The Santa Clara has since written a blistering editorial about the incident, accusing the university of censoring the press.

“We believe that this act of censorship sets a dangerous precedent for the future of journalistic integrity on this campus,’’ the editors wrote, saying the move went against a “long-term explicit understanding’’ that students should have control over content.

The university, which has usually not interfered with the newspaper, handled the incident in a ham-handed way, trying to close the barn well after the horses had escaped. But the administration also deserves credit for allowing the blistering editorial.

On the other hand, maybe the journalists learned a valuable lesson, too. Standing up for what you believe in does not mean you’re going to be friends with the people you cover or even your publishers. The job demands courage — and compassion, too.

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