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Voice of the students

The Daily Helmsman to host First Amendment panel discussion, reunion

By Meagan Nichols
On April 19, 2012

Intimidation, threats, refusal to release public records - that's not the start of a suspense novel, but rather what The University of Memphis student newspaper has fought for 80 years.

The U of M student chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists will host a panel discussion with past editors of The Daily Helmsman, formerly The Tiger Rag, Thursday to discuss First Amendment issues and violations they encountered while working at the paper.

"A good, independent student newspaper is the quintessential student activity - a newspaper by students for students," said Candy Justice, general manager of The Helmsman for the past 20 years. "While others on campus also benefit from the news the paper reports, the editors of the Tiger Rag or Helmsman over the years have never forgotten that their primary job is to keep the students informed and to act as the voice of all students."

The event is free and open to the public and will begin at 6:30 p.m. outside the University Center Theater with a reception followed by the panel and a multimedia presentation showcasing The Helmsman through the years at 7 p.m.

"I think even people who aren't connected to The Helmsman will find this interesting and even funny because it is actually a history of The University's 100 years also," Justice said. "During all the research we've done for months to put this together it has become clear that The Helmsman has been a constant reflection of the history of The University - everything from the fun and happy times on campus to the times of turbulence and social change."

Discussion panelist Jim Willis, who was associate editor of Tiger Rag from 1967 to 1968, worked at the paper during a volatile time in the nation's history, the Vietnam War.  

It was during this time U of M officials, and some claim the FBI, temporarily took over the paper following a peaceful anti-war protest turned so-called riot.

Willis said at the time he was not aware of the possible FBI involvement and still cannot say with complete certainty the FBI was involved in the publication of the special edition paper, but after recently talking to people about the incident he said he has his suspicions.

"My understanding at the time was that the administration had influenced or collaborated on the special edition," Willis said. "In thinking about it today in a historical perspective, I suspect there was some involvement or influence. The president of The University at the time was a former FBI agent and the FBI was actively engaged in domestic surveillance of people they believed might be subversive."

Some students, faculty and administrators have tried to control Helmsman or Tiger Rag content through the years in a variety of ways, Justice said. Everything from stealing papers from news racks to threatening reporters and editors with being fired or pressing criminal charges, she said.

"Some times they have gotten death threats," Justice said. "Some of the attempts at intimidation have been almost funny, like the editor who went to pay his parking ticket and was told that he had already been tried in Judicial Affairs and sentenced to pick up trash on campus."

Trey Heath, Helmsman editor-in-chief from 2005 through 2007 and discussion panelist, said while at The Helmsman he and the rest of the staff worked hard daily to produce a publication that was a true reflection of the student body.

"Often we covered issues that not everyone felt comfortable with or enjoyed talking about, but they were issues we felt were necessary to bring to light," Heath said. "The Helmsman is journalism in a very innocent form and that's not something that can be easily duplicated in the world today."


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