Two Kan. colleges remove advisers following complaints about student newspaper content

It’stornado season and in a state in the middle of Tornado Ally, officials at twoKansas colleges sparked their own campus-wide storms after dumping their studentnewspaper advisers following complaints over editorial content.

RonJohnson, veteran adviser of the Kansas State Collegian, was fired May 10as adviser of the student newspaper and removed from his position as director ofthe corporation that oversees student publications at the university by DeanStephen White of the College of Arts and Sciences at the school.

In aletter to the dean recommending Johnson’s removal, Todd Simon, director of theA.Q. Miller School of Journalism and chairman of the studentpublications board made clear that the Collegian ‘s content was a factorin the decision.

However, in a special meeting held May 20, the KSU Boardof Student Publications approved a resolution rejecting Johnson’s removal, whichit said occurred without a majority of the board’s approval, and asserted thatonly the board – not Simon or any other KSU official – had the authority toremove the student newspaper adviser.

Noting the “lack of support” on theBoard, Simon announced May 27 that he was suspending the search for an interimdirector, but made no mention of reversing his decision regardingJohnson.

Simon did not return requests for comment. But in his letter tothe dean, Simon focused extensively on his belief that the newspaper’s coverageof diversity issues was lacking. The letter also referred to unspecifiedpersonality conflicts between Johnson and others and said that the tenuredjournalism faculty voted 9-1 not to support Johnson’s reappointment. However,five of Johnson’s most recent evaluations rated him as “excellent” with the mostrecent saying he “exceeds expectations.”

Student journalists,Collegian alumni and advisers across the country pledged to fight theuniversity over what Katie Lane, the newspaper’s editor in chief, called a “hugemistake.”

Both College Media Advisers and the Society for ProfessionalJournalists have launched investigations into Johnson’s firing.

Johnsonhas been the newspaper’s adviser since 1989. He is a former president of CollegeMedia Advisers. Though removed as adviser, Johnson will remain on the KansasState University faculty through the 2005-06 school year.

Johnson andthe Collegian have been embroiled in controversy since February, when thenewspaper failed to cover the Big 12 Diversity Leadership Conference, agathering of about 1,000 students on the campus in Manhattan. The newspaper’seditors later apologized for missing the event.

The Black Student Union,a student group at the public university, alleged that the newspaper did notadequately cover minority students’ issues and events. Members of the group ledprotests against the newspaper and Johnson, calling for his resignation becausethey believed he was not doing enough to promote diversity coverage by thenewspaper.

Students also objected to the newspaper’s publication of aheadline that they considered racially insensitive and a comment from thecall-in line, a system in which anonymous readers call in to voice opinions,that they considered racist.

Johnson said he has no doubt that thecontroversy was a factor in Simon’s decision.

“Todd Simon, in hisrecommendation to the dean that I not be renewed, prepared a content analysis ofthe newspaper and used that as part of his justification,” Johnson said. “Theclear implication of the timing [of the decision] follows the semester thatwe’ve had.”

Johnson said he was frustrated and discouraged at the news ofhis dismissal, but he said he was not surprised.

“Was it completelyunexpected? Well no, because we have been in a very intense controversy whereadministrative support for the free student press has been virtuallynonexistent,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he is prepared to “do whateverwe can to strengthen collegiate journalism at K-State,” including legalaction.

Just a few weeks earlier and about 140 miles away, the BartonCounty Community College Board of Trustees on April 20 notified JenniferSchartz, part-time professor and adviser of the Interrobang, that itwould not renew her contact. The board gave no explanation for itsdecision.

Schartz said she suspects that the board made the decisionbecause the Interrobang published a letter to the editor that theadministration did not want published. The letter, written by a formerbasketball player who was cut from the team, criticized the school’s basketballcoach.

Before the letter to the editor ran, the school’s lawyer, RandallC. Henry, told Schartz in a separate letter that the administration expected hernot to allow the paper to publish “personal attacks.”

“Each newspaper hasthe ability to set its own editorial policy and since Barton County CommunityCollege is ultimately responsible for the content of this publication, it is theAdministration’s position that letters of this type will not be printed asletters to the editor,” Henry’s letter stated. The “Administration has decidedthat no letters to the editor will be published which are by and large personalattacks upon other members of the Barton County Community College family. Youand your student staff persons do not agree with this position butunfortunately, the ultimate responsibility from a liability perspective withregard to this newspaper falls on the greater College community and that is whythis decision has been made,” Henry’s letter concluded.

Henry did notreturn requests for comment.

Schartz said she declined to censor theletter to the editor because college student journalists have full FirstAmendment rights and that any censorship would be unconstitutional. Furthermore, courts have consistently held that colleges and universities thatdo not censor student publications cannot be held legally responsible for whatthey publish.

Schartz, who has more than 20 years of journalismexperience, said the Board of Trustees acknowledged that evaluations during herthree years of teaching were good.

“I’ve been punished because I didn’tbreak the law for [the college],” Schartz said. She is pursuing legal action toget her job back.

SPLC View: This has become a lousy springtimetradition. Given the strong legal protections for student journalists,administrators have found it easier to attack student media advisers who refuseto do their dirty work. In fact, courts have consistently ruled that mediaadvisers at public colleges can exert no more editorial control over studentpublications than any other college official. This obviously puts advisers -college employees – in a difficult spot: censor the student newspaper andviolate the First Amendment or refuse and risk removal or punishment by theirboss. While legal protection for advisers exists, it generally depends on theirability to provide persuasive evidence that the retaliation was directly linkedto student media content and that no other reasonable justification for theaction exists. Unscrupulous but careful administrators can make it exceedinglydifficult to prove such a case. At both Kansas State and Barton County CommunityCollege, the evidence appears compelling.

We have long suggested tostudent media staffs and advisers that they create and retain a “First AmendmentFile,” that is passed down to succeeding staffs. Such files should include anythreat or negative comment made with respect to editorial content by school orstudent government officials. E-mails, letters to the editor, memos, minutes ofofficial meetings and records of unofficial contacts during which editorialcontent is discussed should all be retained, no matter how seeminglyinsignificant. One can hope that such files will simply gather dust in anewsroom drawer, but the legal ammunition will be there if needed. It doesn’tappear that this end-of-the-year tradition is going to end anytimesoon.

Indeed, as LegalAlert went to press, it was announced thatyet another college adviser had been relieved of his duties following disputesover student newspaper content. The Indianapolis Star reported May 26that Michael Mullen, the adviser to the Trailblazer at VincennesUniversity in Indiana, was reassigned to the school’s English Department. Amongother things, Mullen refused to prevent his students from publishing an AprilFools issue this year over the written objections of a VU administrator. As withall of these cases, the administration claims the move had nothing to do withretaliation for content. For more information, see the Indianapolis Star articleat: