For student and professional journalists alike, it’s a matter of ethical standards: The Harvard Crimson student newspaper, in its coverage of a campus protest against a federal immigration agency, reached out to the agency to ask for comment.
To student activists, the request showed a disregard for students living in the country illegally. Student groups circulated a petition demanding an apology and some, including the Harvard College Democrats, said they would refuse to speak to the publication.
The Crimson said this week it was standing by the decision despite the criticism in the latest example of heightened political sensitivity on college campuses that many say reveals an intolerance for different — often conservative — points of view. On several campuses, invitations to conservative speakers have been rescinded, and debates have raged over how to protect free speech.
At the Sept. 12 rally in Harvard Yard, representatives of several campus organizations called for the abolition of the U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement agency. In its article on the demonstration, the Crimson said the agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment. That kind of line is typical in news reports to demonstrate that reporters have attempted to get someone’s side of the story but have not yet heard back.
But the 11 student groups behind the petition charged that the effort was tantamount to calling the agency on the students. They wrote that the correspondence with ICE jeopardized students on campus who are living in the country illegally.
“We are extremely disappointed in the cultural insensitivity displayed by The Crimson’s policy to reach out to ICE, a government agency with a long history of surveilling and retaliating against those who speak out against them,” the petition says. “In this political climate, a request for comment is virtually the same as tipping them off, regardless of how they are contacted.”
The groups, including the college Democrats, Act on a Dream and Divest Harvard, called on the student newspaper to apologize and agree not to contact the agency for future stories. As a student publication, they said, the Crimson must prioritize students’ safety.
In a note to readers this week, Crimson leaders Kristine Guillaume and Angela Fu noted the reporters contacted the agency after the protest and did not share the names of anybody in attendance. They also defended the application of journalistic standards.
“At stake here, we believe, is one of the core tenets that defines America’s free and independent press: the right — and prerogative — of reporters to contact any person or organization relevant to a story to seek that entity’s comment and view of what transpired,” they wrote.
A spokesman for the immigration agency, Bryan Cox, said claims that the agency targets protesters for arrest are false and needlessly spread fear.
“Should the Harvard community wish to have a fact-based discussion as to what ICE does and does not do we would be happy to take part in that conversation,” he said.
Campuses across the country have been roiled by protests over controversial speakers and questions about political intolerance — a reflection, some say, of the hardening divide between the left and the right in American discourse. Where some see an effort to shelter students from any objectionable ideas, others see efforts to be more respectful of students’ varied backgrounds experiences.
In one case, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, the student government moved to strip the campus newspaper of funding in 2015 after some students objected to an opinion piece published critical of the Black Lives Matter movement. At Middlebury College in Vermont in 2017, hundreds of students protested a lecture by Charles Murray, a writer who critics say uses pseudoscience to link intelligence and race, forcing the college to move his talk to an undisclosed location from which it was live-streamed.
Some political demonstrations have turned violent, including a 2017 riot at the University of California, Berkeley, over an appearance planned by conservative firebrand Milo Yiannopoulos that was canceled.
Student journalists and their advisers across the country regularly report efforts by students and school administrators to influence their coverage decisions, according to Chris Evans, president of the College Media Association. But he said it is rare to see efforts as blatant as those at Harvard.
“There’s absolutely nothing wrong with protesting,” Evans said. “The thing that can’t happen is that the student newspaper backs down. Let people debate whether certain voices should be heard. But it’s not the journalist’s job, with some exceptions, to decide what can and cannot be heard.”