A college newspaper adviser who sued Fort Valley State University for not renewing his contract in 1998 has won what may be the largest settlement of its kind, including $192,000 and the establishment of new publications guidelines at the university.
In March, John Schmitt finalized a settlement wherein the state of Georgia will reimburse $117,000 of his legal fees and Fort Valley State, where he formerly served as communications adviser, will compensate him $75,000 and adopt a liberal publications policy that will protect future advisers.
Schmitt and Hollie Manheimer, the American Civil Liberties Union attorney who represented him, crafted the new publications policy to “protect advisers,” and it includes specific sections on protected speech and adviser job security.
Schmitt sued the university after his contract was not renewed in the spring of 1998, claiming censorship and racial bias led to his dismissal. Schmitt is white and Fort Valley State is a predominantly black campus close to Macon. He had served there for one year as an assistant professor of mass communications and adviser to The Peachite.
Although The Peachite published award-winning stories, Schmitt maintained that Fort Valley State administrators had their feathers ruffled and sought to censor the paper.
One story reported that Josephine Davis, university vice president for academic affairs, engaged in questionable financial dealings in a former job at a New York university. Another reported on claims that campus security did not properly treat a student who had 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 censured Fort Valley State for censorship and mistreating an adviser, only the second time in its history that the organization took such an action.
Schmitt is now an assistant professor of mass communication at Southwest Texas State University.
SPLC View: Let’s face it. The news for student media advisers has not been very good lately. We have seen an alarming increase in the number of advisers targeted by school officials for allowing their student media to publish stories free from administrative censorship. Unfortunately — in all but the most egregious of these cases — the law is often stacked against employees. Still, as this case demonstrates, it is possible to prevail — and prevail big — provided one can clearly demonstrate that the actions taken against the adviser/employee were in direct retaliation for supporting constitutionally protected student expression. Congratulations to John Schmitt and the ACLU for this very important — and inspiring — victory.