The First Daughter and the Press


Through the years, the Stanford Daily at Stanford University has been an open newspaper giving space to all kinds of views, however offensive to many students and faculty. When I was doing a lot of reporting on college speech codes, I subscribed to the Stanford Daily for more than a year and learned a lot about issues other than speech codes.

I was surprised, therefore, when the present editor, Carolyn Sleeth, recently fired a columnist who has been a longtime paid staffer and had also been editor for special sections. Clearly, as Dan Wolf–the original editor of the Voice–used to say of someone who had earned credibility, the terminated Stanford reporter had a history there. Until now.

Jesse Oxfeld was dismissed because he wrote a column mentioning a new student, First Daughter Chelsea Clinton. The column did not criticize her in any way, nor did it invade her privacy. It was an analysis of the effects of her presence on the campus.

Editor Sleeth, however, has a rigid rule. The First Daughter cannot be written about in the Stanford Daily unless she does something newsworthy. It makes sense, of course, for reporters to focus on news, but columnists are allowed–in every paper I can think of–to speculate or analyze or go back in time or into the future.

In what turned out to be his farewell column, Oxfeld wrote that since it had been announced that Chelsea Clinton was coming to Stanford, “everyone at this university has gone to great pains assuring the world that she’ll have a typical college experience. ‘As much as possible,’ goes the official line, crafted with precision by the university’s spokespeople, ‘we plan to treat her like any other Stanford student.'”

But, Oxfeld continued, “why are we all expected to bend over backward to give Chelsea and her family a ‘normal’ Stanford experience while the First Family is under no similar obligation?” (Also, Chelsea’s presence is not exactly giving the rest of the students a normal Stanford experience–which until now has not included Secret Service personnel.)

To secure his point about the First Parents, Oxfeld quoted a Stanford Daily alumnus, Philip Taubman of The New York Times:

“If the long-term goal is to discourage apreoccupation with Chelsea Clinton, the White House should have considered a less flamboyant way of getting her to school.” (If Philip Taubman were still on the Stanford Daily, he too would have been eliminated from the paper.)

Oxfeld–in a column that was killed before it saw print–pointed out that when the Clintons traveled to Stanford with their daughter, they were accompanied by “the usual phalanx of aides and a sizable press corps….If Stanford wants us all to forget that Chelsea is the daughter of the most powerful man in the world, the White House must make an effort to play along.”

It should be pointed out that neither Chelsea Clinton nor her parents had anything to do with the termination of Oxfeld. Nor did the Stanford administration. The editor of the Stanford Daily, Carolyn Sleeth, takes full responsibility, and she has no regrets: “I was very clear about what I wanted from my staff. He violated it. He is not going to be working here anymore.”

After I spoke to her recently, I remembered the times I was at Stanford a few years ago. Some of the law school faculty and administrators told me with great pride that although Stanford is a private university–and therefore not subject to the First Amendment–it has for years voluntarily adhered to the essence of that fundamental fount of Americanism.

It was important, they said, to imbue the students as well as the faculty with the spirit of what makes this country more open to dissent than any other.

Somehow Carolyn Sleeth didn’t get the message when she imposed a gag rule on her staff. As the courts have maintained for a long time, forcing a gag rule on journalists is antithetical to the First Amendment except in rare instances.And even then gag rules are constitutionally suspect.

Jesse Oxfeld’s introduction to the minefields of journalism brought me back to the time I was fired from my college paper.

I went to what was then, and partly still is, a working-class college in Boston–Northeastern University. Among my classmates were a cop and a labor organizer. The college paper, the Northeastern News, reflected the student body.

Eventually, I became editor in chief of a staff that believed, as I did, that the function of a newspaper was–to use the ancient cliché–to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

We broke a story on some of the financial backers of anti-Semitic literature in the city and, when the Boston papers didn’t pick it up, we gave it to the newspaper PM in New York. We also started making noises about whether the members of the university’s board of trustees knew enough about education to justify being on the board. Or were they trustees only because they gave a lot of money to Northeastern?

At last, the president’s hatchet man told me that either we would concentrate, positively, on campus activities or we’d be fired. All but one member of the staff resigned. The exception became the new editor. There’s always a scab.

I missed the bylines, the excitement of going after a story, and the continuous blackjack game we had going in the editor’s office between deadlines.

Still, I was grateful to have been fired. It gave me, for the first time, a passionate interest in the First Amendment, its history, triumphs, and defeats.

As for Carolyn Sleeth, the editor of the Stanford Daily, she said in a recent editorial, “We are dedicated to preserving the right of both freedom and speech and the principle of individual privacy.”

But Chelsea Clinton is a public figure and therefore, in First Amendment law, has less privacy than a private person. So this editor has gagged an entire staff while speaking of her devotion to free speech. This editor speaks, as the First Father often does, in doublespeak.