Kan. adviser fights removal by suing

KANSAS — When Ron Johnson was hired as the adviser to the Kansas State Collegian, he had a pretty solid understanding of the First Amendment.

Little did he know that a few groups of dissatisfied readers and a few administrators could unite their voices and speak louder than rights set forth in the U.S. Constitution.

As Johnson walked into the office of a Kansas State dean in early May, he did not know he would end up spending the next several months fighting for his job — and the First Amendment.

“[At] those kinds of meetings, you can expect anything,” said the 15-year Collegian adviser.

The conference followed a protest by several minority groups on the Kansas State University campus that were dissatisfied with what they described as a lack of minority coverage in the Collegian.

The controversy began in February when the newspaper failed to cover the Big 12 Diversity Leadership Conference, a gathering of about 1,000 students on the campus in Manhattan.

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

Before February, Johnson said minority groups on campus did not express any major objections with the student newspaper.

“Obviously, we could do a better job of coverage with any campus group,” Johnson said. “The problems we’re having now are really no different than ones we’ve had before.”

Administrators at Kansas State told Johnson that after comparing content of the Collegian, an award-winning publication, to other student newspapers, they felt it was not up to par.

Todd Simon, the administrator who conducted the content analysis, was quoted by the Associated Press as saying that his decision to remove Johnson was prompted by a decline in the overall quality of the newspaper.

“The pattern had been really consistent in terms of reporting and writing having gotten weak,” Simon said. “It’s kind of like a coach; if the record is middling, usually you change coaches.”

Courts have consistently ruled that media advisers at public colleges cannot exert any editorial control on student publications. However, Johnson was criticized for content in the newspaper that he had no direct control over.

“We’ve apologized for those mistakes, and will continue to do so,” Johnson said. “Through this process, we’ve tried to do the best we can everyday.”

Johnson was fired May 10 as adviser of the student newspaper and removed from his position as director of Student Publications Inc., the corporation that oversees student publications at the university.

Though Johnson will remain on the Kansas State University faculty at minimum through the 2004-05 school year, he is not taking his firing quietly.

Johnson, former Collegian editor in chief Katie Lane and fall staff member Sarah Rice filed a lawsuit on July 5 against Simon, director of the university’s journalism school, and Stephen White, dean of arts and sciences at the university.

In the lawsuit, Johnson offered to resume his position at no cost to Kansas State — an expense that had been covered by Student Publications.

“We didn’t want to establish any hurtles for the university to do the right thing,” said Johnson on why he offered to work for free. “They had [already] contracted me into a full-time position [for the next academic year], and we didn’t want there to be any excuse for the university not to reinstate me.”

Johnson temporarily was reinstated to his positions on July 6 after a federal court issued a restraining order that required university administrators to allow him to resume his positions. However, the same judge dissolved the order more than a week later, saying the federal court lacked jurisdiction on the issue of Johnson’s contract with the university. The judge also said the plaintiffs did not adequately show how their First Amendment rights were violated.

Administrators at Kansas State argued that the First Amendment protects only “substantive expressions.” If the censoring actions of school officials are based on objections to the “general quality” of the newspaper, the First Amendment provides no protection, the university’s court filing said.

“We’re very dissatisfied because the issues we thought were important weren’t really addressed,” Johnson said. “The chilling effect of the adviser’s reassignment upon the students who produce the newspaper was not addressed; the due process that was not given to me during this reassignment was not addressed.”

Johnson said he is unsure about the next move in his case, but he is considering moving forward with legal action.

On May 27, university administrators named Linda Puntney, the former assistant director of Student Publications, interim adviser of the Collegian and acting director of student publications.

The university began searching for a permanent replacement for Johnson in July.

Several groups — including the Society of Professional Journalists, the College Media Advisers, the Western Association of University Publications Managers and the Student Press Law Center — voiced concern and disapproval of the actions taken against Johnson.

Supporters of Johnson, including former Collegian alumni and other media professionals, began a petition for Johnson’s reinstatement available through a Web site. As of early August, nearly 130 people pledged support for Johnson.

“We have an administration that is certainly focused on positive news,” Johnson said. “When you have an independent voice such as the [Collegian], that can make for some debate and some controversy.”

Johnson, a former president of College Media Advisers, was removed from his position as adviser in February 1998 for refusing to exert editorial control over the newspaper. He was reinstated 10 days later.

“One of the reasons I stayed at [Kansas State] for 15 years was because of the blessing of talented student journalists,” Johnson said. “They have made the tough times much more bearable and the fight worth fighting.” 

CASE: Lane v. Simon, No. 04-CV-4079-JAR (D. Kan., July 16, 2004)