Wash. college officials will not fire student editors over photo

WASHINGTON — Officials at SpokaneFalls Community College decided earlier this month that they could not fire twostudent editors for publishing a photograph of a couple having sex in thecollege newspaper. College officials had considered firing TheCommunicator Editor in Chief Dennis Machart and editorial page editor NathanBrand for what they claimed were violations of the student handbook when theyran the two identical one-inch photographs on the editorial page inMay.After a meeting in early June, journalism faculty and schoolofficials determined that the handbook did not provide them the authority tofire Machart and Brand. But The Communicator editors and the adviser nowwill revise the handbook to include guidelines that could allow the adviser tolower grades or even fire student journalists in the future if they publish“controversial material” without first consulting the adviser.The inch-size photographs, which editors doctored with black bars tocover genitalia and breasts, bookended the headline of a section titled“Reader Stimulation” in the May 16 issue of the paper. The sectioncontained a question asking readers if they believed God supported slavery and astatement encouraging readers to write letters. Machart said Brandapproached him with the idea for the section and the photograph, which he foundon the Internet, just hours before deadline. The newspaper had budgeted too muchspace for the letters to the editor section and needed to fill one-third of thebottom of the page. Under the suggestion of Machart, The Communicatorstaff voted and the majority agreed to publish the section with the photograph.Brand said he created the section to stir a reaction among TheCommunicator’s readers. “It was probably pretty immatureand probably ‘high schoolish,’ and it wasn’t to the standards thatmainstream journalism is,” Brand said. “But it is a college paper,and you should have the right to act like you are in high schoolsometimes.”In the week after the newspaper was published, Machartsaid about 500 newspapers were stolen from the stands. He said he was unsure whowas responsible for the theft and decided not to report it to the campus policebecause he wanted to move past the incident.After a student complainedabout “Reader Stimulation” a week after the newspaper was printed,college officials considered punishing the student editors. JamesMinkler, dean of instruction for humanities and social sciences at the college,maintains that the students violated their job descriptions in the studenthandbook. The guidelines state that the editor must “stressmaturity” and professionalism and that the editorial page editor mustconsult the adviser prior to printing any “controversial material.”Before publishing “Reader Stimulation,” Machart said the staff neverconsulted adviser Mark Stimpfle, who had already left for the day. Thestudent handbook, which is required reading for the journalism classes thatproduce the biweekly newspaper, does not mention punishment for student editors.Therefore, Minkler said the college determined it could not discipline thestudents for their actions. “We did discuss that the jobdescriptions were not followed,” Minkler said. “But there is nothingstated in the handbook about what happens if students don’t follow thosejob descriptions. There are no rules if there are no sanctions, and the handbooklacked any mention of sanctions. We thought it would be inappropriate based onthat.”At the suggestion of the administration, Stimpfle will workon the handbook with the incoming editor of The Communicator andother staff members over the summer. During a recent meeting with theadministration, Stimpfle and the student editors agreed what areas of thehandbook need to be revised, Minkler said. Carol Green, vice presidentof student services, stated those decisions in a letter to Machart and Brand.She wrote that a relationship between the newspaper and the college must beoutlined to stress the college’s core values, which is a group of ethicalguidelines developed and followed by faculty, students and other members of thecampus community. She also requested that the students include a cleardefinition of the responsibilities of the staff and the adviser, explainconsequences of disobeying the handbook guidelines and determine whether theadviser or the student editors are responsible for determining punitive action.Stimpfle said the revised handbook will continue to require thatstudents consult him prior to publication of “controversialmaterial.” He said students have always had the final say over whether topublish content, but he added that it is necessary for an adviser to reviewcontroversial material. Stimpfle said he will continue to advise student editorsnot to run content he feels is inappropriate.“These arestudents,” Stimpfle said. “It is not a professional newspaper. Whenthey are not sure about something, they need to consult with me. They need tohave the adviser’s input. That is what I am here for.”If thestudents do not consult him, Stimpfle said their grades could be lowered for notfollowing the handbook guidelines. He added that he is considering lowering thegrades for Machart and Brand because they did not consult him about thephotograph. “If a student does not follow the chain of commandthen that student will be disciplined,” he said. “ It will bereflected in the grade and could be reflected in the student’s future onthe paper.”Jenny Tenpenny Crouch, president of College MediaAdvisers, said she thought it was wrong to lower students’ grades for notfollowing the handbook guidelines. “I think if they were actingwith reckless disregard of the truth I might give them a lower grade,” shesaid. “ I would judge it on the qualities of a good news story rather thanif they consulted with me.”Crouch said that a newspaper handbookthat requires prior review by the adviser is unconstitutional.“ Idon’t think you can require [college] students to consult with anyoneabout anything,” she said. “It is not in the framework of a freepress for students. They can suggest that they [the students] consult but tomandate is wrong.”Minkler said he did not think the rule requiringstudents to consult the adviser was a violation of the First Amendment becausethe students are required to seek advice, not approval. “If it isa situation where you have something that is possibly offensive and you take itto the adviser and ask for advice, I think you would have problems showing thatit is unconstitutional, providing that the students ultimately make thedecision,” Minkler said. “If it is a requirement that you go to theadviser for approval, then you have a problemconstitutionally.”Courts have consistently ruled that publiccolleges cannot institute prior review, not just prior approval, of content. Inan April decision in Hosty v. Carter, the U.S. Court of Appeals for theSeventh Circuit ruled against an Illinois college administrator’s bid torequire prior review. Crouch said she also has a problem with theschool mandating that students seek advice about “controversialmaterial” when it is difficult to define the term. “You cansuggest that they don’t do something that might cause problems,”Crouch said. “Examples of controversial content can be given, but there isno definition. It depends on whose standard of controversy you arefollowing.”In the case of the photographs in TheCommunicator, Crouch said it is impossible to define why the photographswould be considered controversial. It could be because some individuals mightview them as pornographic, but it could also be because there is nudity, shesaid. Stimpfle and The Communicator staff will attempt to definethe term in the revised handbook, but Crouch argued that“controversial” is too broad to be defined, thus making the handbookeven more of a problem. On Stimpfle’s advice, Brand and Machartwrote apologies for publishing the photograph. “The apology feltlike I was going against what I believed in,” Brand said. “I amrelieved that I wasn’t punished, and I don’t think that I didanything wrong because the handbook didn’t prohibitit.”Brand, a freshman at the college, said he would like tocontinue working for the newspaper. He said he learned from this incident andwill think about the consequences next time he wants to publish somethingcontroversial. Machart, who only has one semester before he graduates, isretiring from The Communicator after this quarter is finished. Hesaid his leaving has nothing to do with the controversy.