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Déjà vu at CNU

News item: Someone stole copies of the student newspaper at Christopher Newport University.

Naw, that’s old news. Happened last September.

Wait a minute. You mean it happened again?

Last fall, a student allegedly trashed 700 copies of the paper, The Captain’s Log, because she was angry about a story that the paper published.

The school administration’s response: They squelched their student journalists’ right to complain then buried the incident in a murky, secret, faculty-run discipline system (See editorial, “A Teaching Moment at CNU,” Oct. 24, 2011).

Now the staff at The Captain’s Log has endured another paper-snatching episode, although this time the culprit was an employee of the administration. Really.

Here’s what went down on April 4 at the Newport News school, according to Emily Cole, the editor-in-chief of The Captain’s Log:

On Wednesdays, CNU gives tours to prospective students. Every college in America provides this service – it allows the prospect to get a sense of the place and the school gets to strut its stuff.

The Captain’s Log is published on Wednesday mornings and distributed free in racks throughout campus. The April 4 issue featured a page-one story about a suspected meth lab that had been discovered in a dorm on campus; two students were banned from school.

Drugs and crime on campus – not the kind of student life the administration might want to show high-school kids and their parents. So someone wanted to hide the story. Literally.

Emily Cole, the paper’s editor-in-chief, confronted a “University Fellow” who was seen carting off copies of the paper. “Fellows” are recent alums who work for the school. He said that he was “told by the administration” to remove the papers. That way, the embarrassing story wouldn’t be available to the would-be students.

“They told us to put them back after the tours,” he added.

Cole went to complain to the dean of admissions, who said he didn’t know anything about it. He said he’d make some calls. Papers miraculously reappeared in a rack. Back at the school welcome center, Cole discovered an admissions coordinator and another Fellow, each with 200 copies of the paper.

“I caught them black-handed, with ink on their hands,” Cole said. They offered to return the copies to the racks, but Cole did it herself.

The paper-snatching plan was “calculated and methodical,” Cole said. Papers were taken only from racks that were along the campus tour route.

Cole contacted the Student Press Resource Center in Arlington, which helped her draft a protest letter to CNU President Paul Trible. She called the Daily Press, where she interned last summer. The controversy wouldn’t go away. On April 10, Trible sent an email to all students in which he “expressly condemned” the taking of the papers.

“This action was taken by young employees who love CNU and were concerned that a newspaper article would create a bad impression for visiting prospective students,” Trible said.

He said there would be discipline but he said nothing more, since it was a personnel issue.

Trible added the statement the student journalists have been waiting to hear ever since the paper-trashing incident last fall: “The Captain’s Log is free to write anything it pleases and CNU fully respects the freedom of the press.”

Memo to the staff of The Captain’s Log: Hold Trible to that last statement. Etch it in stone somewhere. Remind him he said that when the next episode occurs.

But scapegoating nameless junior staffers or overzealous “young employees” for this incident? Sorry, President Trible, that rings hollow. You must not realize how bad this looks for your university.

It’s going to get worse, because this story, as they say in the news business, has legs. The day I talked to Cole, she already had been interviewed by the Daily Press, the Richmond Times-Dispatch and local TV stations. Right after our talk, she had an appointment with a Washington Post reporter.

Give Cole the last word: By trying to hide the papers, “they’ve done more damage [to CNU] than the meth lab story ever did.”

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