Removal of faculty advisers sparks concern about independence of student publications

At least four college newspaper advisers have been removed from their roles or seen their positions reduced or eliminated over the last six months, raising concerns among advocates about the independence of student publications around the country.

Two of the cases have prompted lawsuits, and one of the former advisers has filed a grievance. At one school, the entire journalism program was canceled and funding to print the student paper was slashed.

Several of the changes have come amid disputed circumstances, which the legal proceedings may clarify. But Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, which provides legal assistance and educational materials to student journalists, sees a simple common thread: controversial content.

“It’s too much to say there’s a concerted effort among the schools,” LoMonte said in an interview last week. “But it’s a perfect storm of financial stress for colleges and universities, combined with their ever-growing interest in presenting a happy public image. And the local conditions are ripe for censorship and retaliation.”

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By “local conditions,” LoMonte is referring to the schools and to their communities’ media economies. College advisers tend to be most vulnerable at schools where journalism isn’t a crown-jewel program that attracts money or prize recruits, and in communities that are remote and underserved by major professional news organizations.

“It’s not a coincidence,” LoMonte said. “We’re talking about northern Mississippi, the upper peninsula of Michigan—have-not places journalistically, where defanging a student journalism program won’t draw heavy condemnation from the professional media, and it won’t create a big backlash on campus.”

Some disclosures are required here: I’ve handled cases pro bono for the SPLC, though I am not involved in any of the cases discussed in this article. LoMonte and I have been co-authors in the past. The accounts of the cases below are drawn from articles by reporters for the SPLC, which both provides news coverage of student media and is often a participant in litigation, including the two suits here.

That said, consider the four adviser removals noted above:

  • In April, the ousted newspaper adviser at Northern Michigan University filed a lawsuit against several members of the paper’s board of directors—including four students—claiming the board had violated her free-speech rights by terminating her. The suit also claims the board violated the rights of the student managing editor, whom the board declined to hire as editor. The paper has been at odds with administrators over, among other things, public records requests and investigations into the university’s contracts with several companies. A university spokesman said in an earlier statement that the board did nothing wrong and hopes the matter “can be resolved in a manner satisfactory to the entirety of our community”; contacted by CJR, a spokesman said he had nothing to add at this time.
  • In April, Mississippi’s higher-education board terminated five academic programs at Delta State University, including its journalism program—cutting the salary for its only faculty member and the funding to print its 83-year-old student paper, The Delta Statement. The publication had recently won 18 state and regional awards for reporting and design from the Mississippi Press Association and the Southeast Journalism Conference. It plans to move to an online-only format in 2016 staffed by students interested in journalism. The faculty member told an SPLC reporter that the cuts were announced after the paper ran an article about a lawsuit that a former faculty member filed against the university president. A spokesperson for the board did not reply to a request for comment from CJR before this article was published. After publication, a spokesperson offered an explanation for how the decision about which programs to cut was made, and said, “When considered from either an institutional or system perspective, the deletion of the B.A. in Journalism degree at Delta State University was the correct decision.”
  • In May, members of the student paper at Muscatine Community College in Iowa filed a lawsuit against administrators for removing their full-time faculty adviser, and for allegedly changing the fall class schedule “to marginalize the journalism program.” According to the complaint, the removal followed two conflicts: the first in 2013, when the paper questioned the Student Senate president’s selection as “Student of the Month” in a contest judged by her uncle, and the second in 2014, when an administrator whose photo appeared in a story complained and told the paper it must obtain permission before publishing “his photograph or a photograph of anyone else on campus.” The college’s attorney has said, “We disagree with many, if not all, of the contentions in the lawsuit”; she told CJR she could not comment further, given the pending litigation.
  • In June, the newspaper adviser at Fairmont State University in West Virginia filed a grievance against the school for ending his employment—which came after the paper published several articles critical of the administration’s response to evidence of black mold on campus. According to the paper’s student editor, at one point an administrator threatened to withhold funding to print the paper if an editor didn’t hand over certain materials related to black mold, and later the administrator cut the staff’s stipends. The adviser claims in the grievance that he was dismissed improperly. The university says his appointment ended in May, and it was not renewed. A university spokeswoman said the school “has a long history of encouraging student involvement with the newspaper” and “has no intention of discontinuing or ending publication of” the paper.

Again, the facts and motives in these cases are disputed. But it’s important to note that for many small college journalism programs, the adviser is the heart and soul. He or she is the institutional memory, the recruiter, the coach, the cheerleader—and more. So, removing the adviser can go a long way toward interrupting the outlet’s operations and neutralizing its reporting. Those are among the concerns that got the SPLC involved.

“In the past, we were gun-shy because we were afraid of creating bad precedents, when the courts were generally inhospitable to claims by students and teachers,” said LoMonte. “We’ve reached the point where the law can’t get much worse, so why not get involved? What’s the harm? Too many schools are already acting like the First Amendment doesn’t exist.”

It doesn’t help that campuses are increasingly adjunctified, populated by faculty who have little job security and, thus, little room to speak out or push back. That makes it easier for schools to remove some journalism advisers from their positions, and more difficult for faculty members to rally in large numbers to defend one of their own. Moreover, the US Supreme Court has not been kind to the free-speech rights of public employees, and the lower courts have been curtailing the free-speech rights of students at public institutions.

One of LoMonte’s concerns—and mine—is that the vulnerability of journalism programs where the “local conditions are ripe” could create a privilege gap of sorts, and deprive communities of news.

“We could have a dozen or so crown-jewel programs with financial support and faculties full of Pulitzer winners, and then a vast news desert across the remaining campuses, where journalism is starved out of existence,” LoMonte said. “If schools continue to play Whac-A-Mole with smaller programs, then the one-percenter programs—the Cronkites, the Medills—will be the only real games left in town.”

That could also cause the underserved communities to lose both an important source of news and a pipeline of journalistic talent. College journalists play vital roles in local media economies. In small towns, the campus and community often are one and the same, and the internet has allowed student outlets to produce and distribute news for whole communities. Meanwhile, these publications provide important journalistic training in places where opportunities can otherwise be scarce.

In other words, the college press must be robust and lively—and controversial at times—to fulfill its mandate and to continue making significant contributions to communities.

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Jonathan Peters is CJR’s press freedom correspondent. An attorney, he is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, where he teaches and researches media law and policy, with an affiliate research position exploring big data and Internet governance in the KU Information & Telecommunication Technology Center. Peters has blogged on free expression for the Harvard Law & Policy Review, and he has written for Esquire, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, Slate, The Nation, Wired, and PBS. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanwpeters.