Professional advisers group censures Maryland college

College Media Advisers voted in August to censure Mount St. Mary’s College for its treatment of its student newspaper adviser, but the school’s president said the decision is misguided.

CMA censured the private Catholic school with an enrollment of 1,350 students after completing an investigation stemming from a complaint registered by William Lawbaugh, adviser to The Mountain Echo. Last year, Lawbaugh was officially reprimanded and denied a $3,800 raise awarded to the rest of the faculty at the school. He said the penalty stemmed from his refusal to review the paper’s content before it goes to press.

Mount St. Mary’s President George R. Houston Jr. defended the financial penalty, calling it punishment for “mismanagement” after Lawbaugh allowed student editors to use advertising revenue to fund salaries of the Echo staff, a practice administrators said violates school policy.

The CMA investigation, however, found that the penalty resulted from Lawbaugh’s refusal to review the paper’s content — called offensive and sexually explicit by some Mount alumni — before it goes to press.

Responding to the Aug. 16 letter of censure from CMA, Houston denied censoring the paper or pressuring Lawbaugh to review its contents prior to publication. The letter also refuted the student media’s constitutional claims on freedom of the press.

In a Sept. 1 letter to CMA President Chris Carroll, Houston said, “Mount St. Mary’s College does not agree with your organization’s belief that ‘student media must be free from all forms of external interference designed to regulate content. …’ As a value-oriented institution, we believe that all of our activities — academic, athletic, co-curricular — should reflect the basic mission of the Mount.”

CMA’s letter of censure stated clearly that as a private school, Mount St. Mary’s may not have done anything illegal, but called its actions “unethical.”

Over the past few years, the SPLC has witnessed a sharp rise in administrative attacks on student media advisers. School officials, perhaps frustrated by their inability to directly control student media, have sought to force advisers — their employees — to act as censor themselves or to pressure their students to alter the editorial content of their student media. Where the advisers refuse, they have been docked pay, transferred to less desirable positions or, more commonly, their contracts to advise the student media are simply not renewed. While there are important exceptions, the law in these cases is often tipped in favor of the school employer. Consequently, the court of public opinion, often more than a court of law, is essential to successfully contesting such action. Recognizing that, CMA launched its Adviser Advocate Program in March 1998 to respond to grievances filed by advisers who have been fired or otherwise sanctioned by their school for performing advising duties in accordance with CMA principles. Mount St. Mary’s is only the second school to be formally censured by the organization.