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SPJ calls for reinstatement of Western Illinois student newspaper editor


Update 2/3/2015: Western Illinois University has reinstated Nicholas Stewart as Editor-in-Chief of the Western Courier student newspaper. The interim suspension was lifted late Monday afternoon. SPJ is happy school administrators recognized Stewart operated within his rights as a student journalist and he will be able to again focus on his education and journalism career.

Jan. 30, 2015

Paul Fletcher, SPJ National President-Elect, 804-873-1893, pfletcher.spj@gmail.com
Jennifer Royer, SPJ Communications Strategist, 317-361-4134, jroyer@spj.org

INDIANAPOLIS – Society of Professional Journalists President Dana Neuts sent a letter Thursday urging Western Illinois University President Jack Thomas to immediately reinstate – without penalty -- Nicholas Stewart as editor-in-chief of the university’s student newspaper.

Stewart was issued an interim suspension with pay Jan. 22 from his position at the Western Courier newspaper after he recorded a brawl that broke out in front of the University Union on Dec. 12. The video was posted on the Courier’s website and was later sold by Stewart to other news and broadcast organizations. The university says it was never compensated for the sale of the video. His suspension will continue until the matter is resolved in a student judicial hearing, Vice President of Student Services Gary Biller said in a letter to Stewart.

“Because Stewart is a part-time employee who is paid for about 18 hours of work per week, the university does not have claim to his evenings or outside activities, especially while the university is closed for break and the student newspaper is on hiatus,” Neuts said in her letter. “Stewart should have been allowed to work as a freelancer during this time. The First Amendment gives him the right to record a news event with his own equipment and post it or sell it as a freelance journalist. It is our understanding that a precedent had already been set for Stewart to use his own equipment to cover and post news stories for the student newspaper. He was only conducting himself in the manner he thought was acceptable by the university.”

The University’s policies are unclear on freelance work, but precedent had been set for Stewart to use his own equipment to record and post stories to his own You Tube channel for later use by the Courier.

“He should be commended for seeing a breaking news story and taking the initiative to cover it when he was not on the clock and the newspaper was on hiatus for break – SPJ would be more concerned if he had seen this news happening and did not do everything he could to report on it by whatever means available,” said SPJ President-Elect Paul Fletcher. “College should be a time when young people can learn to make decisions on their own without fearing repercussion by the university they attend – universities which are supposed to encourage and foster that growth. The punishment being considered for Stewart in this incident is extremely harsh and unfounded.”

SPJ joins the Student Press Law Center and the Illinois Broadcasters Association in contacting the university on Stewart’s behalf. SPJ’s local chapter, the Chicago Headline Club, is also monitoring the situation and supports Stewart.

“Journalism students are going into a rapidly changing media world in which they may have to freelance to get by. The university should encourage this kind of initiative, and university policies should be clear on what’s allowed,” said Mary Wisniewski, president of the Chicago Headline Club.

This situation has taken attention away from what is most important at this stage in Stewart’s career and education – honing his skills and obtaining his degree, Neuts said in SPJ’s letter.

“It sends the message that student journalists must now fear suspension for publishing news of which the university does not approve, and that the First Amendment is only looked upon favorably when it benefits the university. No one is benefitting from the situation as it stands. Not Stewart. Not WIU. Not the Western Courier. Not journalism as a whole,” she said.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information about SPJ, please visit spj.org.


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