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Home > Reading Room > Censor or Be Sacked

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Censor or Be Sacked

by John Wicklein

Jennifer Schartz recently won election to her county's council. The job is enjoyable and rewarding, she says, but not so much as the job she loved and lost — adviser to the Interrobang, the student newspaper at Barton County Community College in Kansas.

A year ago March, the college's lawyer ordered her to keep letters that were critical of members of the college "family" out of the paper. She objected and told the college president in writing that the order interfered with the paper's content. And that, she said, was a violation of the First Amendment. At the end of the term, Schartz was dismissed.

Cause and effect? Violation of Schartz's and the paper's First Amendment protections? A lawsuit she filed in federal district court says yes. A rebuttal by the college says no.

In this case the jury, figuratively, is still out — the court may well decide firing an adviser does not violate the U.S. Constitution. But several journalism watchdog organizations say that this and similar firings interfere with campus newspapers' independence.

There has been a steady increase in dismissals, reassignments and forced resignations of advisers in the past several years, according to Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, which helps advisers and student editors fight censorship.

Included in this list are Central Missouri State and Fort Valley State in Georgia, both of which have settled advisers' lawsuits against them; Vincennes University in Indiana, where an adviser's suit is pending; and Kansas State. In each instance, the adviser claimed he or she was ousted because administrators objected to the paper's content, and in each case, the institution denied the claim, citing other reasons for its action.

The dismissals do raise a question: Is firing the adviser a surrogate for direct censorship?

Goodman and other watchdogs say firing has become the method of choice for public university officials who want to pressure campus newspapers to withold stories that criticize or embarrass them.

The problem for such officials is that federal courts have ruled repeatedly that it is a violation of student editors' First Amendment rights to interfere with the independence of campus papers at public universities. That holds despite the fact that the university may be providing direct or in-kind support — a newsroom, for example — to the paper.

The beauty of this tactic, says Paul McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum, is that the officials using it don't have to engage in direct censorship.

"College officials are fast learners," he said. "Putting pressure on a campus paper by firing the adviser can work, because it looks like a personnel action."

The dismissal can be laid to inadequacies of the adviser, and it's hard for an adviser to prove he or she was dumped because of refusing to censor stories. It might not be direct censorship by an administration, but its message is sent: Advisers had better impose prior reviews or they are out, even though federal courts and the advisers' code of ethics forbid it.

The message gets to student editors as well: Lay off stories castigating the administrators, or your adviser will be sacked or censured, and usually students like their advisers.

McMasters thinks the problem has to do with a "longstanding and unfortunate perception of campus officials that the campus media should be a public relations tool" for the university, rather than vehicles in which future newspaper reporters and editors are learning the craft of journalism.

There may be an element of that in the Barton County Community College case. According to Schartz's lawsuit, the trouble began in February 2004 when the paper received a letter to the editor from a student athlete that criticized the basketball coach, who he said had unfairly dismissed him from the team. Zach Becker, the editor, took the letter to the coach for his response, and the coach warned him not to print it. Despite this, the Interrobang printed an edited version in its March 11 edition. That same day, Schartz received a letter from Randall C. Henry, Barton's attorney, that said, "the administration has decided that no letters to the editor will be published which are by and large personal attacks upon other members of the Barton County Community College family."

She declined to comply, on Constitutional grounds.

Without giving her a reason, Barton's board of trustees in April told Schartz her teaching contract would not be renewed for the 2004-05 academic year.

"The true reason," Schartz said in filing her suit, "was retaliation against her for exercising her First Amendment rights as the faculty adviser to the Interrobang, for supporting the First Amendment rights of her students and for her refusal to censor the content of the Interrobang in violation of the First Amendment."

Schartz said administrators previously had grumbled about stories in the paper that "raised questions about the academic integrity of BCCC as it related to its athletic programs."

Asked about thoseallegations, Barton President Veldon Law and attorney Henry said they wouldn't comment because the suit was pending.

However, Law replied in an e-mail that the Interrobang has continued to be published by students "with no interference by the college." He'd previously told the court he had not been involved in Schartz's dismissal, and in fact had recommended that her teaching contract be renewed.

"I firmly believe in the First Amendment," he wrote, "and also believe in being responsible with that speech. Any administrative disagreement with stories published in the Interrobang has been limited to opinions expressed by individual employees."

During Schartz's three-year tenure as adviser, the paper won several awards for excellence, Schartz said, including two from the Kansas Association of Collegiate Press for the best two-year-college paper in the state. She had received three Barton Difference Awards for teaching excellence.

Before taking the job at Barton, Schartz, who is 48, had served 23 years on the staff of the Great Bend Tribune in Kansas, winding up as managing editor. Despite the difficulties, she said, she enjoyed the adviser job "immensely." She has asked for reinstatement at Barton, and, in case that doesn't pan out, is applying for a similar position at another college.

Campus Media Advisers, an association that supports independence of campus papers, censured the college as an institution "oppressive of students' rights to free expression and hostile toward those professionals it employs to advise the student press."

The organization is helping Schartz with her court costs, said Kathy Lawrence, CMA president. James Highland, SPJ vice president for campus chapter affairs, says SPJ plans to send a task force to look into the dismissal but will hold off until the suit is resolved.

Kansas State Case
The biggest brouhaha over an adviser firing in recent years occurred at Kansas State University.

In spring 2004, members of the Black Student Union protested that the Kansas State Collegian had been ignoring minority concerns and failed to give adequate coverage to diversity on campus. Some blamed Ron Johnson, the paper's adviser, and demanded he be fired.

Given the protests, professor Todd Simon, then director of the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communication, analyzed the paper's content. In a letter to Stephen E. White, dean of arts and sciences, he said his analysis showed diversity coverage and enterprise reporting had been inadequate. He recommended that Johnson be dismissed. The dean complied but approved a one-year contract for Johnson to continue teaching in the journalism school.

Johnson charged that the dismissal was a direct result of the student protest. Simon denied this, alleging instead a decline in the quality of the paper and inadequacy of Johnson as an adviser. Before Simon wrote the letter, tenured faculty in the journalism school had voted not to extend his year-to-year contract.

Sarah Rice, editor of the paper this spring, says criticism about diversity coverage and the subsequent firing has had a chilling effect on editorial decision-making.

"Should we (assign coverage) just to make people happy?" she asked. "Some editors had a fear that if we made mistakes in our coverage, we would be in trouble again. We try to cover diversity, but I had to remind editors that we are independent and will make our own judgments."

The CMA board, having conducted an inquiry, voted to censure Kansas State. CMA, which Johnson served as president from 1993-95, previously had named the Collegian the best daily broadsheet in the country.

The adviser and two editors, Katie Lane and Rice, filed suit in U.S. District Court, claiming violations of their First Amendment rights. In rebuttal, the university said Simon's content analysis went only to the "general quality" of the coverage, not "specific expressions," and was therefore not subject to the First Amendment.

The university's position is "unprecedented, bizarre and offensive to the First Amendment," said Goodman, speaking for SPLC.

"Using this analysis, the government ... could ban any speech it wanted so long as it claimed its actions were based on objections to the 'general quality' of the publication and not to specific stories," Goodman said.

Meanwhile, an SPJ task force sent to investigate came up with a split decision in its report. Two members, Samuel Adams, professor emeritus of journalism at the University of Kansas, and Florestine Purnell, a former reporter and editor for USA Today, said the firing was not a First Amendment issue, but a personnel action based in part on Johnson's failure to guide editors to provide better coverage of multicultural issues.

They said, in part:

Clearly, KSU's multicultural community did not trust the staff adviser to be a fair and balanced source of news and analysis. ... Indeed, the chilling affect (the editors) claim to have descended on staff should be a wake-up call. ... The adviser should have helped them to avoid these failures (of coverage) in the first place. ...

Censorship is a two-edged sword that allows multicultural communities to accuse Collegian gatekeepers of virtually "censoring" K-State history by excluding minorities from proper coverage in the campus media.

Task force members Neil Ralston, the chairman and an assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern State University in Louisiana, and Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell, a freelancer and president of the Kansas City Press Club, held that that the dismissal was a direct violation of the First Amendment.

They wrote, in part:

Some administrators told the visit team that Simon's analysis of the newspaper had examined the "quality" of the Collegian's articles, not content. But such argument is nothing but an exercise in semantics, because the analysis examined Collegian's articles, which undeniably is its content.

"It made an easy case for me," said Ralston, "when they were quite clear they were using content as a reason for dismissing Johnson." That, he said, clearly violated the student editors' right of self-expression.

"I don't think (Ralston and I are) not understanding of these (diversity) issues," Fivecoat-Campbell said to SPLC. "I just think that maybe personal experience had something to do with that."

Fivecoat-Campbell and Ralston are white, Adams and Purnell are black.

"I, in no uncertain terms, reject that my 'paint job' colored my decision-making," Adams replied. "I have been against 'black issues' in many cases. In this case, it wasn't a 'black issue.' "

Ralston says he sensed the administrators didn't think they were interfering with the paper's independence.

"They saw they had a problem, and they took action."

Despite the split report, the SPJ board voted unanimously to condemn the firing as a First Amendment violation.

Simon objected strongly.

"The Collegian has been and remains editorially independent," he said in an e-mail.

At no time, he asserted, has any administrator attempted to constrain coverage by the paper's staff. His statement was backed by Linda Puntney, acting director of student publications, who was appointed interim adviser after Johnson was reassigned. Puntney, who has supported Johnson's reinstatement, said the students' First Amendment rights have "absolutely" been protected in the time following Johnson's dismissal. Last summer, President Jon Wefald signed a commitment that said the university would "never order or pressure an adviser to coerce a student staff's editorial decisions."

Those who did see violations were dealt a blow on June 2. The federal district court dismissed Johnson's suit, ruling the dismissal did not violate the First Amendment. At press time, Johnson had not decided whether to appeal.

Tough Role to Play
An adviser's role is not a happy one. The controversies at Kansas State, Barton County Community College and Mount St. Mary's go to the heart of the adviser's role at a campus newspaper. Advisers see their function as mentors, never censors. CMA's Code of Ethical Behavior states "student media must be free from all forms of external interference designed to regulate its content," and advisers have an obligation to protect their independence.

Adviser Pamela Foster, who has argued with administrators at Tennessee State over the issue of prior review, said the role of the adviser is to guide students to implement the principles of excellent journalism but "never to do it for them."

Along with firings, other incidents of interference have increased in recent years, SPLC reports. Requests for legal assistance totaled 2,360 in 2003 against 2,258 in 2002. As in previous years, censorship was the chief concern, involving 38 percent of the calls. Totals for 2004 will be compiled in August, but the upward trend appears to be continuing.

Beside pressures for prior review, other tactics student journalists complained about included temporary suspensions of publication, threats to editors to curb investigative reporting and confiscation by university officials of "offending" editions.

Several advisers said they think government restriction of the news media's access to information after 9/11 seems to give permission to university officials in their attempts to curb reporting on campus.

"Since 9/11," said CMA's Lawrence, "we have been living in a time when the media are not very popular. So there is more acceptance of efforts to silence them."

First Amendment activists, advisers among them, talk of an anomaly: On campuses where administrators have attacked their papers' independence, you don't find many journalism professors or other academics speaking out in support of the students' First Amendment rights.

"There is an irony," said McMasters, "that college faculty members who are never hesitant to invoke their own academic freedom rights are very wary to come to the defense of their students."

Few individual journalists on papers in university towns speak up when their student counterparts are fighting for freedom of the press, says Jane Kirtley, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota and former executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

"Some do stand up, particularly in editorials," she said, "but not as many as should."

It's in their interest to do so, however, advisers suggest. Each successful intimidation imparts the wrong message to fledgling journalists who become staff reporters. They may feel, when they get into the field, that it's the better part of valor to knuckle under to government officials who say, "You can't print that!"

You do find exceptions among professional journalists and academics. In the Kansas State case, for instance, 164 journalists and advisers signed a petition asking for Johnson's reinstatement. Nationally, campaigns by journalism advisers in CMA and journalists in SPJ have been outstanding in taking to task university administrations that put campus papers under attack.

Given that the tide against the independence of campus papers is rising, how can it be turned back? Task forces shine lights on depredations. Lawsuits help, but they are cumbersome and take long to be resolved.

Experts say there's a quicker remedy: The tide can be swept back by strong individual faculty members and professional journalists willing to stand on the shore and object loudly and publicly.

They may not save the current adviser's job, but they can put university officials on notice that the next time they try to censor their campus papers they will be embarrassed by further cries of protest. Up until now, CMA, SPJ and several state press organizations have been leading the shout. But more voices are needed.

In his column, McMasters put it succinctly:

"Journalism education, no less than its professional counterpart ... must be driven to serve the First Amendment. ...

"Too many journalism educators are friends of the First Amendment the way a biologist is a friend of the bug. (It) must be more than a specimen to study. ... They must show their students, especially, that preaching the First Amendment is not enough. They must practice it, too."

John Wicklein is a former reporter for The New York Times and director of the Kiplinger midcareer program for journalists at Ohio State. For the past 11 years, he has been an independent writing, reporting and editing coach for newspapers, including The Washington Post, Buffalo News and Memphis Commercial Appeal.
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