Life without Louie

Five years ago this week, Louis Ingelhart died at the age of 86. I don’t know what student press freedom was like before him, but I know that it would never have been the same without him.

Louie, as he was known by those who loved and admired him, was a staunch believer in the First Amendment and had no qualms about expressing his beliefs in that area. When his beloved Ball State University got a new president in May 2004, Louie attended the press conference. He sought out the reporter for the student newspaper, tugged on the kid’s sleeve and told him to take Jo Ann Gora a message.

“You tell that woman that no one has ever censored the student paper on this campus,” he said. “And no one ever will.”

Louie wasn’t a hypocrite when it came to that issue. He was the first chairman of the department of journalism on his campus, serving from 1953 to 1979. During that time, the university grew and the paper changed, buthe worked tirelessly to keep student media a free and open public forum.

And it worked too.

During his tenure, the newspaper only had four full-time faculty advisers, indicating that working under him wasn’t a constant battle to keep the kids safe. He also helped turn the heads of administrator, making sure they understood why it was important to let the students have their own triumphs and deal with their own problems.

He was so successful at that task that the university now bestows the Emens Award to college administrators who have gone to great lengths to keep meddling censors away from their campus media. The award is named after the university’s former president John R. Emens, with whom Louie worked frequently and often considered an ally.

Shortly after Louie stopped being the chair of the department, but before he retired, the student newspaper ran a three-part series that uncovered how university trustees were feathering their own nests by investing university money in under-performing assets that helped the trustee-affiliated banks. The adviser at the time was threatened, the kid who wrote the series was a target and yet, in the end, it was the board that crumbled. That kind of thing doesn’t happen without a guy like Lou setting the foundation for a campus that treasured the freedom of the press.

I got to thinking about Louie and my encounters with him this weekafter an advising colleague of mine was sent packing.

Paul Isom of Eastern Carolina University was fired two months after his paper published full-frontal shots of a streaker who interrupted a university football game.The kids ran three images, including one of the guy with his knees to the breeze, and covered the story thoroughly. After that, they followed it up with stories as to the guy’s arrest and his pending court date. In other words, they practiced journalism. (NOTE: people covering this have blocked out the guy’s dick. They went Full Monty in their photos.)

Did they need a picture of the guy’s dick on the front page? I don’t know, but that’s not the point. It wasn’t my call or your call or the adviser’s call. It was up to the staff of the paper. They debated, they discussed, they made a call.

And it was their call to make.

When people of an administrative age decide they don’t like seeing something and decide to get all hand-wringy about what’s wrong with kids these days and their Intertoob porn and such, I have to laugh.

After a congress-critter who had attended school at one of my previous stops argued with something we ran that was somewhat provocative, I went back into the archives to see what ran when he was on campus.

Turns out, there used to be an annual pictorial of the “Nude Indiana Competition” or some such thing with a ton of nudie shots in black and white. I bet that was laminated to the ceiling of his dorm right above his bed.

Even on a campus where I’ve got kids reading Glenn Beck books like they’re the next installment of “The Hunger Games,” the paper has had its moments of “whoa!”

A former department chair stopped by my office a couple months ago and handed me a copy of the student newspaper that was about as old as I am.

It was an April Fool’s edition that had a guy standing in a field holding a giant inflatable banana between his legs on its cover.

He also gave me a photo print he found that ran in one of the regular issues.

“Check out the cockshot they ran,” he noted pointed at the two streakers who donned masks and jogged through campus.

One guy, hey, I hope it was cold outside but the other guy? Damn…

I doubt Lou Ingelhart would have been a huge fan of the nudity running in the paper.

(Then again, maybe he would. One of my most vivid memories came from spending some time with him at a convention. He was in his early 80s at the time. We had to catch a shuttle to the airport and he was going with our group, so I found him in the hotel lobby. He was talking to a woman less than half his age, at least, and when I approached, she left. “How are you, Dr. Ingelhart?” I asked. “Good until you showed up,” he wryly responded. “I was talking to a blonde until you chased her away.”)

However, Louie would have been stark, raving pissed that an adviser was removed for essentially doing his job.

He once told me that he didn’t like administrators who decided it was their job to kick kids around. He also knew that if you couldn’t kill the paper or destroy the editor, shooting the adviser was the next best trick administrators would use to silence the press. It appears to be working as well. The kids at ECU had noted a chilling effect in the wake of Isom’s firing.

ECU is not unique in this approach, unfortunately. The Student Press Law Center has a running list of advisers who were fired for not stepping in and conducting prior review or prior restraint. Also, keep in mind that while some advisers in high school are required to do this and that private universities are different than publics, we are talking about young adults availing themselves of their Constitutional rights. Just because we call them “college kids” doesn’t mean that they’re not at the legal age to enlist in the military, vote, marry and buy smokes (but not road beers…).

I’ve always believed that student newsrooms are amazing learning environments.

What ECU has decided to teach them through the school’s actions against the paper’s adviser is deplorable.