Kincaid v. advisers

It was a decision that changed high school newspapers across\nthe country. Hazelwood East High School near St. Louis, Mo., proved\ntriumphant when students tried to stop their school from censoring\ntheir student newspaper. The landmark 1988 Supreme Court decision\nin Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier had devastating\nrepercussions for high school student’s free speech rights across\nthe country, as administrators were allowed to tighten their leashes\non newspaper staffs and advisers.

Eleven years later, college student media fear they could face\nthe same fate as former Kentucky State University students Charles\nKincaid and Capri Coffer presented their case to the U.S. Court\nof Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in March.

If the court sides with the school and against the former students,\nthe limitations of Hazelwood could be applied to any college\nor university student newspaper or yearbook in the Sixth Circuit’s\njurisdiction, which includes Kentucky, Ohio, Michigan and Tennessee–bad\nnews not only for aspiring journalists in those states, but for\nnewspaper advisers as well.

“Advisers’ jobs may be at whatever whim their university\nwants,” said Rosalind Florez, head of the Media Law Committee\nof College Media Advisers and director of student publications\nat the University of Cincinnati. “Our jobs would always be\non the line, and if the administration didn’t like what we were\ndoing, they could get rid of us.”

Florez said that is exactly what happened to the Kentucky State\nUniversity’s publications adviser, Laura Cullen, because she would\nnot censor student articles as per the request of Kentucky State\nVice President Betty Gibson.

As is, Florez says, advisers seem to be the scapegoat when\nadministrators find problems with the student newspapers. Most\ntimes they do not want to punish a college student, so they crack\ntheir whip at the advisers.

Times are tough these days for college advisers even without\nthe possibility of Hazelwood moving in on campus. Three\nadvisers have recently been removed from their duties, and all\nsay it is because they refused to censor their students’ publication.

Sara Mullins, director of student publications at Frostburg\nState University in Maryland will lose her advising position at\nthe end of June.

“[My supervisor] cited quality concerns [about the student\nnewspaper], complaints that press releases weren’t being run,\nand consternation regarding a controversial editorial column which\nhad at one point referred to the president and a faculty member\nas ‘femi-nazis,'” she said.

Her supervisor told her that the newspaper would still exist\nafter Mullins’ departure, but plans for advising the newspaper\nwere still being developed.

Mullins said the school’s public relations director informed\nher that he had been given responsibility for advising, a task\nhe does not want because of the added work.

“They’ve asked the public relations director to take over,”\nsaid Mark Witherspoon, president of College Media Advisers. “Basically\nthey’re saying, ‘We’re a P.R. paper.'”

Unlike other advisers who have recently been removed, Mullins\nis not a faculty member, nor does she have any other connection\nto the university. At the end of the school year, she will be\nout of work.

“The problem is that not many adviser jobs are defined,”\nFlorez said. “The administration can change the definition\nas they see fit.”

Cuyahoga Community College is a two-year junior college in\nCleveland, just 240 miles northeast of Cincinnati, where the Kincaid\nv. Gibson case was heard on appeal. Emmanuel Hughley, an assistant\nprofessor of English, was told in March 1998 by the dean of liberal\narts that he would no longer act as adviser to the school’s news\nmagazine, The High Point, effective at the end of the month.

Hughley said the dean was upset at recent issues of the publication\nthat contained grammar, punctuation and spelling errors. In fact,\nin the February 1998 issue of The High Point, the name\nof the president of the college was misspelled, the real reason,\nHughley believes, he was fired.

Hughley, a member of the College Media Advisers for over eight\nyears, defends that he was just doing his job as the CMA handbook\ndefines it and would not violate the First Amendment by proofreading\nand making changes to his students’ articles.

The CMA code of ethical behavior states: “It should not\nbe the media adviser’s role to modify student writing or broadcasts,\nfor it robs student journalists of educational opportunity and\ncould severely damage their rights to free expression.”

But Hughley said the dean cited the college attorney who said\nthe adviser’s job is indeed to proofread, and as long as an adviser\ndoes not change the content of the article, it is not unconstitutional.

Another CMA member, John Schmitt, was also told his advising\ncontract would not be renewed at the end of the 1998 school year\nat Fort Valley State University in Georgia.

Even though the school newspaper, The Peachite, won\nseveral awards that year, Schmitt said he was not surprised because\nit came after a year of several controversial articles, which\ncreated friction between the newspaper staff and the administration.

Among the articles were ones focusing on questionable financial\ndealings by the new vice president; a campus security guard’s\nmistake in handling a student’s asthma attack, who eventually\ndied; a campus bookstore that was overcharging students and a\nseries about the misplacement of student activity fees.

Witherspoon has written a letter to Cuyahoga and Fort Valley\nState offering to help settle the matters and asking administrators\nto reconsider the removal of Hughley and Schmitt.

“[CMA] would be happy to provide a third party who could\nhelp mediate the situation or provide education about the importance\nof student media and the role of the adviser,” wrote Witherspoon.

He also stresses that advisers who belong to CMA firmly believe\nand preach that censoring articles is wrong.

“CMA members believe that students learn much, much more\nwhen they make the decisions about what is published in their\nstudent publications. The adviser’s job is to teach the students\nhow to publish quality publications and then critique those efforts\nafterwards so students can learn from their mistakes and from\nwhat they did well,” Witherspoon wrote.

But the Kincaid case could change all this. Florez even believes\nthat advising positions may even become obsolete, stating that\nadvisers are the link between student journalists and the administration.\nAnd if the administration can dictate what a student publication\ncan and cannot print, then it is possible colleges and universities\nwill excommunicate the middle man.

Witherspoon hesitates to agree because he feels administrators\ndo not want to run the newspapers themselves, but only to have\na say in their content.

Both Florez and Witherspoon also state that just because a\ncollege or university resides outside the limits of the Sixth\nCircuit does not mean advisers in that area can breath a sigh\nof relief.

“Other circuits can take this under consideration, and\nother universities have the Sixth Circuit to point their finger\nat and say, ‘Look what they’re doing,'” Florez said.

“You can’t take away our responsibility to teach student\njournalists,” Witherspoon said. “If they destroy our\nresponsibility, then the future of journalism is in grave danger.”

Read other coverage.

‘College Hazelwood’ case hits the Sixth Circuit