FLORIDA — Administrators at a public college have suspended the production of a student newspaper for up to a year — despite their acknowledgment of the First Amendment rights students at the institution have.
Editors of The Lance, a student newspaper at Manatee Community College, were informed in a letter on May 20 that during the 2004-2005 academic year, the college would not offer the laboratory class in which at the newspaper is produced.
In a letter obtained by the Student Press Law Center, Darlene Wedler-Johnson, dean of the division of arts and letters and social behavior sciences, said that because of questions raised by The Lance staff, she is seeking a review of the school’s journalism program. Until the review is complete, she said the school would not offer the class — which subsequently prevents students from publishing the newspaper.
The suspension comes at a time when newspaper editors are battling with administrators over editorial control of the newspaper, getting access to the school’s financial records and use of the college’s logo.
“It started [in February] with putting the college logo on our business cards,” said Mike Gimignani, executive editor of The Lance. “We received a call saying we were illegally using the college logo … and we found out there were memos asking to confiscate those cards.”
In March, editors published an article without their adviser’s approval about the lack of student activities on campus — an article that did not sit well with administrators. For a follow-up article, a Lance reporter requested the budgets of various student organizations — a request that took the administration more than a month to fulfill.
Although college spokeswoman Kathy Walker said students generally have editorial control at the newspaper, the advisers always have been responsible for the newspaper’s content, from pointing out grammatical errors to missing information in stories. Though she could not recall a time when either advisers had exercised prior review, Lance reporter Sarah Zell said it did happen.
“[Faculty adviser Doug Osman] confronted the student editor and Rebecca King [the newspaper’s other adviser] and said he would not allow the newspaper go to press without seeing the copy first,” Zell said. “They certainly attempted to exercise prior review.”
Osman taught the class, which was offered on both of the college’s campus, at the school’s Venice location. According to students, King, who served as an adjunct faculty member and adviser at the college’s Bradenton location, never tried to exercise editorial control of the newspaper.
“There were several instances where we would try to get a story done and would encounter the administration delaying the ability to get any information,” Gimignani said. “It ended with a final meeting at the end of the [spring] semester where we wanted to establish some ground rules for next semester.”
Gimignani said that even though a review has been ordered for the entire journalism program, the class that produces the paper is the only one in the department the college has cancelled. A similar class that produces a student magazine is unaffected by the review.
“Why was the newspaper shut down — and not other campus publications — if the university is supposedly looking into its journalism program?” Gimignani said. “I don’t understand how it’s a journalism-curriculum issue.”
Walker said questions about control of the newspaper arose this year when students who had previously worked on other college newspapers transferred to MCC and expected the same type of “setup.”
“They came to us with that expectation — that background — and didn’t understand or grasp the lab-style that was at our college, and they challenged it,” she said. “They took [Osman’s] advising as trying to interfere with the production of the newspaper and things came to a head.”
When the students brought to the administration’s attention court rulings that forbid advisers from requiring students to submit articles for review or approval prior to publication, the adviser became puzzled about what his role should be, Walker said.
“They brought up some things we were not aware of and how case law in this matter has changed,” she said. “The more [Wedler-Johnson] looked into it, the more she became aware about how the laws have changed. It became obvious we needed to do a thorough review of the lab and the class attached to it.”
Walker said she does not believe the college is censoring the newspaper by putting it on a temporary hiatus. She said the hiatus will give administrators time to figure out what everyone’s role at the newspaper should be.
Rebecca King, another Lance faculty adviser, said in an article published by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that she believes the students are being censored, but does not believe it is intentional.
Walker said the university president has asked the department to explore the option of allowing students to publish the newspaper outside of a class while administrators review its setup.
“We are going to change to bring [the setup] into compliance,” Walker said. “It clearly cannot continue to function that way it was.”
Wedler-Johnson and both of the newspaper’s advisers did not respond to requests for comment.