Fired adviser settles claim with Fort Valley State U. for $192,000

GEORGIA — A college newspaper adviser who sued FortValley State University for not renewing his contract in 1998has won what may be the largest settlement of its kind, including$192,000 and the establishment of new publications guidelinesat the university.

In March, John Schmitt finalized a settlement wherein the stateof Georgia will reimburse $117,000 of his legal fees, and FortValley State, where he formerly served as communications adviser,will compensate him $75,000 and adopt a liberal publications policythat will protect future advisers.

"I think this kind of an agreement concerning the paperand the adviser may be a landmark kind of arrangement," Schmittsaid.

Schmitt and Hollie Manheimer, the American Civil LibertiesUnion attorney who represented him, crafted the new publicationspolicy to "protect advisers," and it includes specificsections on protected speech and adviser job security.

"The adviser is not a censor," according to the newpolicy. "No teacher who advises The Peachite willbe fired, transferred, or removed from the advisership by reasonof his or her refusal to exercise editorial control over ThePeachite or to otherwise suppress the protected free expressionof student journalists."

Schmitt sued the university after his contract was not renewedin the spring of 1998, claiming censorship and racial bias ledto his dismissal. Schmitt is white and Fort Valley State is apredominantly black campus close to Macon. He had served therefor one year as an assistant professor of mass communicationsand adviser to The Peachite.

Although The Peachite published award-winning stories,Schmitt maintained that Fort Valley State administrators had theirfeathers ruffled and sought to censor the paper.

One story reported that Josephine Davis, university vice presidentfor academic affairs, engaged in questionable financial dealingsin a former job at a New York university. Another reported onclaims that campus security did not properly treat a student whohad an asthma attack and later died.

"There is no question that the dismissal was, in part,an attempt to censor the newspaper," Schmitt previously said.

Following Schmitt’s dismissal, College Media Advisers censuredFort Valley State for censorship and mistreating an adviser, the first time in its history that the organization took suchan action.

In a similar case in 1987, Jerry Thompson won a settlementin which Northern Illinois University paid him $15,000 in legalexpenses and reinstated him in his job and adviser position aftera two-year court battle.

Schmitt is now an assistant professor of mass communicationat Southwest Texas State University.

Read our previous coverage.