A scandal, an ethics teacher and how far a student went to tell the story

Vinny Vella shows off his way of fighting for a free press — the school newspaper
Sharon Gekoski-Kimmel/The Philadelphia Inquirer

Vinny Vella works the night shift at the Philadelphia Daily News, arriving at crime scenes to document what took place. When a teenager was gunned down on a basketball court, Vella was there to bear witness to friends and family mourning their loss.

“I always tell myself that if I didn’t do the job I did, and neither did my colleagues, no one would know about this. And misinformation or a lack of information is always worse than transparency,” said Vella.

The 23-year-old got serious about journalism early in his career, as a student editor at La Salle University. A dean at the Roman Catholic school in Philadelphia stopped Vella from running an exclusive story about a professor who had hired strippers for an ethics seminar.

“Misinformation or a lack of information is always worse than transparency.”

College newspapers at public universities are typically free to cover news as their staffs see fit. But private colleges such as La Salle may impose tighter controls. Often when they do, advocacy groups such as the Student Press Law Center or the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education raise such an outcry that the college leaders back off.

Despite being among the first to know about the scandal involving the La Salle professor, Vella and a co-editor lost their chance to publish the scoop — other news outlets found out about the incident and reported on it.

After the story was out, the dean allowed Vella to publish a version of the story in the college’s student paper, but only if the story ran at the bottom of the front page, versus above the fold, where newspapers traditionally put their most important news.

Vella complied, but the dean had no idea how far Vella would go to protect something he believed in, a free press. “We wanted to take a stand,” he recalled. In a move that would jump-start his career and make headlines itself, Vella left the top half of the front page blank except for the words “See below the fold.”

Want to learn more and get involved? Check out Freedom House’s freedom of expression campaign and the Ford Foundation’s grants to promote free expression around the world.

Mark Trainer and freelance writer Christopher Connell contributed to this article.