When college student publications tackle controversial topics, administrators often take an unprecedented interest in the paper.
Newspaper advisers may suddenly find themselves caught between standing up for their students and working to please the administration. It is a fine line to walk, especially when job security comes into question.
Advisers who said it was implied that they should exercise prior review of student media content sparked controversy recently at two colleges, while local media coverage of a student newspaper’s conflict with administrators prompted a third adviser to seek a new job.
At Thiel College in Pennsylvania, Dan West resigned from his position as adviser to the Thielensian because he said his chances for promotion and tenure were threatened when he refused to censor content.
Thielensian Editor Nathan Shrader said the controversy began when the weekly paper ran an article exposing the fact that administrative salaries were above the national average, while faculty salaries were below.
After the story ran, West said he learned that college President Lance Masters was concerned with his performance as adviser. The board of trustees also questioned Shrader after the newspaper published a photograph of a student who was wearing condoms on her ears during a sex education event.
‘The implication that I should censor the paper was there,’ West said. ‘So rather than do that, I would just rather resign.’
Masters said West had no reason to fear that the administration would block his promotion.
‘I have upheld every single faculty recommendation that’s been brought through this office. I’ve supported every action for retention, tenure and promotion,’ Masters said.
However, Masters added that tenure is not ultimately the decision of the administration, it is the decision of the board of trustees.
Student staff members and interim adviser Robert Wells, a tenured professor, are in negotiations with the college’s attorney to ensure that future advisers will not feel pressured to censor the paper.
Thielensian staffers and the media board, its oversight body made up of students and faculty, recommended a ‘hold harmless’ clause in the adviser’s contract, which would protect advisers from being punished in the event of controversial newspaper content.
Masters said he does not think the college’s lawyer would advise the administration to sign a contract including that clause. He said that because the newspaper is funded entirely through student activity fees, he believed the private college is ultimately the publisher of the paper and must have an adviser read each issue before it goes to press.
Wells did not sign the existing adviser contract and he said he does not intend to sign a contract until the negotiations over the wording are completed.
West said he would be happy to return to the Thielensian if the contract agreed upon better protects advisers.
‘I don’t think my chances for promotion in my normal job duties should suffer just because the students had written an article that was unpopular with the administration,’ West said.
At Tennessee State University, adviser Pamela Foster said she wants the work of student journalists at The Meter to remain ‘autonomously theirs.’ She said she will not demand to see student work prior to publication or make grammar and spelling corrections for the students despite the administration’s request that she do so.
Foster said she received a letter from Dr. Maurice Odine, head of the communications department, on Nov. 12, 2002, requesting she ‘perform mandatory prior review.’ Foster said complying with the request would put her in violation of the College Media Adviser’s Code of Ethics, so she refused.
In December 2002 Foster said a proposal to remove her from her position as adviser was rumored to be circulating, but the motion was never formally introduced to the publications board for a vote.
Odine directed all questions to the chair of the publications board, Gloria Johnson.
Johnson said members of the publications board expressed concern over the spelling and factual errors found in The Meter. However, she said the board does not want to approve the content of the newspaper before it is published.
‘I am not concerned about what [students] choose to write about or even what they say,’ Johnson said.
Chris Carroll, past president of College Media Advisers, sent a letter to the university in support of Foster, in which he said, ‘We believe student journalists must be free to make all content decisions for their publications. This right to be free from prior review is mandated by the U.S. Constitution for students attending state-supported schools.’
Courts have consistently found it unconstitutional for state colleges to require material for campus newspapers to be submitted to faculty for review prior to publication. In the recent decision in Hosty v. Carter (see VICTORY, page 4) handed down by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, the court affirmed the notion that prior review is unconstitutional. It said, ‘The prohibition on administrative censorship has extended to cases where school officials required mandatory prior review of student media ‘ and other indirect forms of censorship when undertaken to affect content.’
Foster said she hopes a new policy to define roles at The Meter will uphold her stance and not require prior review. The policy is currently in draft form, awaiting a vote by the publications board.
In New Jersey, the Cumberland County College newspaper adviser said she left the college as a result of a conflict with administrators over newspaper coverage.
When the student newspaper was denied access to photograph a Sept. 11 remembrance banner that was removed from a hallway because a student wrote an obscenity on it, Voice adviser Patty Hanahoe-Dosch took the story to the local media.
The administration of the community college eventually put the banner back up and the Voice ran a photo of it with ‘censored’ written over the statement, ‘fuck y’all.’
However, this was not the end of the controversy for Hanahoe-Dosch. She said she was called to meetings and given memos reprimanding her for ‘misrepresenting’ the college in the media.
Frank Basil, the solicitor for the college, said, ‘There was an exchange of a number of mostly e-mails and both sides have vastly differing views of what occurred.’
John Nichols, a spokesperson for Cumberland, said there is no official policy regarding when a professor can speak with the media. ‘We urge them not to, but we don’t say that they cannot contact the media.’
The Supreme Court’s 1968 ruling in Pickering v. Board of Education said a teacher may speak out on a ‘matter of public concern,’ as long as that speech does not ‘substantially disrupt the efficient performance of the public school service she renders.’
Hanahoe-Dosch said she was nervous that she would be denied tenure or face retaliation from administrators who were involved in the Sept. 11 banner controversy. She said she started job hunting in November and when she was offered a position at a school in northern New Jersey, she decided to take it. ‘It was very clear to me that I made the right choice,’ she said.
Basil said, ‘She wasn’t forced out, she wasn’t disciplined, she wasn’t dismissed. Turnover is something that happens, especially, by the way, among the non-tenured faculty.’
On Feb. 22, Hanahoe-Dosch filed a formal complaint with the Cumberland Board of Trustees against college President Kenneth Ender. She said she wants the board to clear her of the claims that she ‘misrepresented’ the college.
Basil said an executive committee of the board of trustees is looking into Hanahoe-Dosch’s submission and will act on it.