As Louisiana’s Grambling State University made national news the past couple weeks for student protests over deteriorating facilities and a shortage of qualified professors, a related battle with administrators is unfolding over how student newspaper editors are covering the issue, or not covering it.

Reeling from heightened media attention, angry alumni, protesting students, and scrutiny from press freedom groups, officials at the historically black university backtracked Monday from an initial decision to punish two student journalists for allegedly breaking the ethics code of the school paper, The Gramblinite.

Wanda Peters, the adviser at The Gramblinite, said that her decision to suspend the online and opinion editors of the newspaper were overturned by the university’s dean of students because she failed to follow proper protocol. “Both editors have been reinstated and are free to return to the newspaper immediately,” Peters said in a telephone interview Monday evening.

Peters had suspended opinion editor Kimberly Monroe for two weeks after the graduate student participated in a campus protest, although Monroe was not covering the event and told Peters that she attended the rally as a “concerned student.” David Lankster Sr., the Gramblinite’s online editor, was to be suspended indefinitely after he tweeted photographs of school facilities in decay and statements by anonymous sources using the Gramblinite’s official Twitter account.

The issue, Peters insists, is that the students did not follow the code of ethics they signed when they were hired, which forbid “involvement in campus events, politics, demonstrations, and social causes that would cause a conflict of interest, or the appearance of such conflict.” The paper’s code of ethics also instructs student editors and reporters to “clearly label editorial analysis and expressions of personal opinion.”

Instead of participating in a rally, it would have been more appropriate for Monroe to have expressed her opinion in the following week’s paper, Peters said. Will Sutton, the director of public relations and communications at Grambling, initially scolded Lankster for tweeting statements from anonymous sources. Sutton, a former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, said on Monday that he supports student journalists and encourages them to be more aggressive.

“We can disagree about sourcing standards, but I match mine up there with The News & Observer, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and others of high quality,” said Sutton via email after several fellow NABJ members questioned his earlier tweets. (Disclosure: I am a member of NABJ and serve as co-chair and vice-chair of policy of the association’s digital journalism task force.) Sutton said he had nothing to do with the actions taken against the editors at the campus newspaper.

The drama at the paper comes amid broader tensions at the university, simmering since the beginning of the school year. They came to a head last week when Grambling football players walked out of a meeting with college president Frank Pogue and students started a series of protests. State funding for the school has been cut 57 percent since the 2007-08 academic year, The Shreveport Times reports.

Though events at Grambling have been attracting national press, there is currently no coverage of the controversy on the website of the The Gramblinite, leaving Lankster’s tweets as the only source of student-generated news about the turmoil. When asked about the missing reporting from the paper’s website, Peters said she discussed story ideas with a few of the students, “but what they produce is another story.”

If Monroe and Lankster’s suspensions had been carried out, they would have violated the students’ rights, according to Student Press Law Center Attorney Advocate Adam Goldstein. Starting Monday morning, several calls and at least one post on the center’s Facebook page alerted advocates that Grambling’s student journalists needed help.

“I’ve rarely encountered a school so outright committed to violating students’ rights,” Goldstein said of the public university on Monday afternoon. “This is exactly what it was: government silencing dissent in the most heavy-handed, nauseating way possible.”

There’s a lot that’s gone wrong at the The Gramblinite recently—problems that have little to do with the mold growing inside the newsroom; problems that pre-date the current turmoil. Much of it can be traced to the fact that the newspaper has not had an editor in chief since the start of the semester. A student in that role would have been responsible for making editorial decisions and disciplining staff. But Peters, the faculty adviser, currently fulfills these duties, with help from staff adviser Joice M. Dunn.

Peters decided to forego hiring a student editor in chief, she said, because none of the five candidates who applied for the top job were qualified enough to fill the position. “They either lacked the skillset or the maturity, or a combination of both,” she said.

An editor in chief would have allowed the paper to have an independent voice in its coverage of university protests, Goldstein said. But historically black colleges are often underfunded, and officials protective about the schools’ reputations—and thus more likely to be overcontrolling.

“Grambling has made it very clear that they have no interest in journalism and they have no interest in their students,” Goldstein said. “They are only interested in good PR.”

Faculty interference in the Gramblinite’s affairs has a history. In 2007, school officials suspended the whole newspaper and tried to require student editors to submit all stories to a faculty adviser—Peters—for editing before publication. After a torrent of criticism from news organizations across the country, the university rescinded that decision.

Peters disagreed vigorously that the current arrangement is exactly what the university tried to put in place six years ago. “It’s not even close,” she said. “I look over the pages to see if there are any misspelled words or punctuation errors. I point them out and I hope that (students) will change or fix it. I don’t control what they publish … I don’t overrule anybody, I advise.”

But events during the recent turmoil tell a different story.

—Monroe, the opinion page editor, said Peters instructed her to remove parts of an op-ed from the last edition of the weekly newspaper. Peters said the information should have been removed because the content was submitted after deadline and “didn’t add anything to the column.”

—In a letter from Peters informing Lankster of his indefinite suspension, the adviser wrote: “You were given a role of responsibility, but your behavior has irretrievably damaged the reputation of the newspaper. Your appointment as the Gramblinite’s digital presence was based on your longtime role at the newspaper as well as the maturity and professionalism that should have been gained at your internships. More was expected of you. If further investigation substantiates your unprofessional behavior, you will be terminated and removed from any association whatsoever with The Gramblinite.” Only editors hire and fire or threaten to; When asked about this Peters responded: “I’ve already said that I overstepped my bounds. I don’t want to talk about that anymore.”

—Peters described how another newspaper staff member came to her office earlier on Monday to talk about the newspaper. She instructed the student to write down all that was wrong with The Gramblinite, and to provide that list to her, not an editor.

—Finally, student journalists were compelled to turn over the password to the newspaper’s Twitter account “because I wanted to know,” Peters said, acknowledging that she went to three students seeking the information before she got it. “I didn’t tweet anybody, and I certainly didn’t delete any tweets,” she said. “I want the students to be able to do their jobs freely, but in these types of situations we should know how to access the accounts if we need to.”

Now that the two editors have their jobs back, the bigger question is whether they want them.

Lankster, who has worked at the paper since 2009, said he doesn’t plan to return to The Gramblinite. “I feel like they tried to silence my voice,” he said. “Rather than deal with that again, I’ll just start my own blog or website.”

Monroe is weighing her options. “I’m not 100 percent sure at this moment. I will speak with my academic adviser later this week. But as of right now, I haven’t been back to the newsroom,” said the graduate mass communication student, who has worked at the paper two years. “There are just a lot of things still left unsaid in terms of the communication between all staff members, including the adviser.”

 

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Tracie Powell writes about the media and media policy, specifically on issues regarding piracy, media ownership, government transparency and the business of journalism. A graduate of Georgetown University Law Center, she lives in Washington, DC. She has contributed to Poynter, NPR, and Publica, the first nonprofit investigative journalism center in Brazil.