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News / Nation & World

At L.A. City College, student reporters decry censorship at public, on-campus events

By Melissa Gomez, Los Angeles Times
Published: June 4, 2023, 2:25pm

LOS ANGELES — Juan Mendoza arrived at the Herb Alpert Music Center early. As reporter and photojournalist for the Collegian newspaper, his assignment was to cover an event honoring Mary Gallagher, L.A. City College’s outgoing president.

But as he was setting up his camera inside the auditorium, the chair of the music department told him he had to leave. It was a “private event,” Christine Park insisted.

“I’m a student journalist,” he responded.

“‘I don’t care. Pack your things and leave,’” Mendoza recalled her saying. He was stunned at the time, and he still is, weeks later. He tried to argue, he recounted, saying the event was billed as open to the public, but Park repeatedly shut him down.

Humiliated, he left the May 2 event.

LACC journalism professor and advisor Rhonda Guess said Mendoza’s experience was just the latest incident of censorship at the college.

Multiple students say they have been barred or restricted from on-campus public events, including sports, fostering a campus culture that has discouraged them from covering stories in the largest community college district in the nation. The Collegian, which publishes biweekly, has a storied history and, like many student publications, has served as a launching ground for future journalists.

“When you bar student access, and you are a public college, which we are, I consider it serious,” Guess said. The community college’s students “cover the president of the United States when Air Force One lands in Long Beach and Joe Biden goes to Long Beach City College. Why wouldn’t our students be able to cover the president of LACC, Mary Gallagher, when she’s going to be sitting at a concert?”

In an interview, Gallagher affirmed the rights of student journalists at L.A. City College. But she said she disagreed that the student reporter had been censored and attributed the interaction to a “miscommunication.” Park, through a college spokesperson, disputed Mendoza’s version of events. She declined an interview with The Times.

Guess wrote to the chancellor of the college, citing Park’s actions as “part of a mindset at City and a campus culture that will only get worse once the president leaves.” Park’s lack of respect for the 1st Amendment dates back to 2015, Guess said, when she kicked a student reporter out of an event at the music center.

“I think some people at City College should be reminded that they are not greater than the institution, and that the rooms and the real estate should not garner more respect than the students who come here to learn,” Guess wrote.

She grew more alarmed Friday after a Collegian photojournalist was confronted by armed Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies, who patrol the campus, after he photographed the hallways of the music building for an assignment.

LACC spokesperson Shaena Engle said the reporter made staff feel “unsafe and threatened.” The reporter, Louis White, who is Black, said he took photos in common spaces and made it clear to staff that he was a Collegian reporter, although they attempted to bar him by claiming the building was private property.

The invitation to the Gallagher event had been blasted out by email and shared on social media with the L.A. City College community. It featured faculty and staff music performances, including Park on piano.

Yet the “spirit of the night” was dampened after Park forced him out, Mendoza wrote in an opinion piece for the Collegian, which Park has not moved to correct.

“In reality, Park didn’t shut me down; she censored the entire LACC community,” he wrote. The newspaper also ran a front-page news story. Inside, they published a graphic of the invitation with a stamped logo: “Censored. No student media allowed.”

Gallagher recalled the event but did not agree Mendoza had been censored.

“It sounds to me like a miscommunication,” Gallagher said in an interview with The Times. “Someone indicating something like censorship really raises my eyebrows. … We’re not in the habit of censoring our student journalists.”

Park, through LACC, denied the interaction and said she asked Mendoza to put his camera away and gave him an opportunity to take photos during intermission. Mendoza said that isn’t true, or he would have stayed.

LACC said the music center does not allow photography and videography to avoid disrupting performances. Yet the college posted photos online taken during intermission inside the room Mendoza had been forced to leave. The photos were deleted on Instagram after The Times inquired about them, but they remain online.

Engle said the student handling social media for the college was given permission to take photos during intermission.

A student journalist should not have been barred from a public space simply for being a journalist, said Lindsie Rank, a student press counsel at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression.

“There’s good case law that tells us that public entities like L.A. City College can’t discriminate against individuals just because they’re a journalist,” Rank said. “Colleges and universities should be trying to foster positive relationships with student journalists and giving them the widest latitude possible.”

But an on-campus incident in 2021, Guess said, had the opposite effect, creating a chilling effect among some of her student reporters.

Beatrice Alcala, whose family ate and breathed soccer, jumped at the opportunity to cover the women’s and men’s teams for the Collegian.

But during the fall of 2021, she said, she faced repeated censorship and restrictions from athletic director Rob McKinley, who disparaged the paper’s coverage and barred her from accessing the public field.

The first incident occurred when Alcala and fellow reporter Poupy Gaelle Nguetsop were in a locker room with student athletes shooting videos and photos for a story. McKinley threw them out, saying the soccer players needed their privacy, Alcala recalled.

The experience frustrated Nguetsop, who said she never returned to cover another sports event.

But Alcala persisted. On Sept. 17, 2021, during a home game, Alcala stood on the sideline near the LACC Cubs bench when McKinley approached her and accused her of spreading COVID-19. Alcala, who was masked, vaccinated and tested regularly for coronavirus, said she was surprised but agreed to move away. She wrote about what happened for the Collegian without naming McKinley and vowed to return to the field.

“After this happened, I worried about future confrontations,” she wrote. “But I will be back to report soccer action, once I know there will be no future harassment.”

She returned one more time to distribute copies of the Collegian. But as she handed papers out, McKinley came toward her and said she could not cross an imaginary line he pointed out on the ground.

This time, Alcala immediately went to Guess, who joined her out on the field.

“‘I don’t like her,’” Alcala and Guess recalled McKinley saying when they pressed him about why he was barring her access. He questioned why reporters were there and why they previously reported about the scoreboard being out and a soccer player from the opposing team getting injured.

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“I just have never seen anyone talk to a student in that way,” Guess said. She explained to McKinley that covering college sports gave students real-life experience. “Haven’t you seen a Lakers game?” She remembers asking him. Covering college sports helps them get that experience, she said.

“He told me, ‘Then let them go cover the Lakers,’” said Guess, who was taken aback. “I realized I was in a losing battle.”

McKinley, who is also an instructor at LACC, did not return a request for comment. Guess said she reported the incident to Gallagher, who affirmed the right for students to be there on a field that belongs to taxpayers.

Alcala filed a Title IX complaint for gender discrimination following the incident and a representative of the Los Angeles Community College District interviewed her but nothing came of it, she said.

“I felt like I was less than an insect,” she said. “I didn’t want to have issues.”

Rank, the student press counsel, said retaliation in response to unfavorable coverage is “absolutely unconstitutional.”

It was reminiscent of a 2009 incident at L.A. City College, when the Collegian was facing a sudden massive budget cut following complaints of censorship. The college later retracted its nearly 40% budget cut.

For their part, students at the Collegian have kept publishing.

The newspaper has played an important role in covering the campus community, from the pandemic-era shutdowns to disabled students suing L.A. City College for a lack of federally protected accommodations.

On a recent Friday afternoon, the students were gathered in a classroom, learning how to shoot 360-degree photos to improve their storytelling. On the whiteboard, an alumnus of the paper had scrawled a message about his cherished time working for the Collegian. National awards lined the wall and stacks of old copies were piled everywhere.

Guess said she has reached out to student press attorneys, including Rank, to move the issue forward.

She worries about what will happen to the future of the Collegian, which will celebrate its centennial in 2029. And she said she is prepared to confront censorship to ensure Collegian student journalists rights are protected.

“Every now and then it’ll rear its head,” she said, “and when it does you need to act.”