SPJ condemns KSU adviser’s firing, says actions violate 1st Amendment

INDIANA — The Society of Professional Journalists, the nation’s largest organization of working journalists, has condemned the firing of Kansas State University student newspaper adviser Ron Johnson, calling the school’s action “troubling” and “offensive to the very notion of what the First Amendment was intended to protect.”

In a letter released July 30, SPJ called on KSU President Jon Wefald to restore Johnson to his position as director of Student Publications Inc., which oversees the Collegian, KSU’s student newspaper. Johnson was removed from his post in May following controversy over the newspaper’s coverage of minorities on campus.

Johnson and former Collegian Editor in Chief Katie Lane filed suit against two KSU administrators in July, claiming Johnson’s dismissal was based on the newspaper’s controversial content and therefore a violation of the First Amendment. Lane and Johnson requested an injunction barring Johnson’s removal. Todd Simon, dean of KSU’s School of Journalism, and Stephen White, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, are the defendants in the ongoing lawsuit.

In their response to the injunction request, Simon and White denied that Johnson’s dismissal was related to any “substantive expressions” in the paper’s content. Instead, they argued, Johnson was removed due to “general quality of the newspaper.”

“Only those substantive expressions are protected as free speech by the First Amendment,” the defendants argued.

In its letter condemning KSU’s actions, SPJ warned that “under this novel new theory of First Amendment jurisprudence, the government could punish journalists and ban any speech it wanted as long as it claimed its actions were based on objections to the ‘general quality’ of the publication and not to individual stories.” The legal theory set forth in KSU’s argument goes against decades of court precedent and could “seriously undermine any semblance of press freedom on college campuses,” SPJ said.

According to the letter, if KSU does not abandon its argument and reinstate Johnson, SPJ is committed to fighting the school’s action in the courts.

“I’m very, very thankful for SPJ’s support,” Johnson told the Student Press Law Center on Thursday, adding that he and co-plaintiff Lane “continue to be perplexed” by the university’s stance.

“It does continue to surprise me how unresponsive KSU has been to national scrutiny,” Johnson said, referring to criticism of KSU’s actions by SPJ, the Student Press Law Center and College Media Advisers.

Johnson said SPJ’s warning — that KSU’s position is troubling to First Amendment rights — is legitimate.

“That quandary and the potential for harm continue to cause me great concern,” he said. “In all honesty, I worry more about the advisers and students who are going to be harmed by the precedent that this sets.”

On September 3, lawyers for Simon and White requested that the lawsuit be dismissed, claiming that the plaintiffs had failed to support their claim that Johnson’s firing violated his First Amendment rights. Johnson said attorneys for the plaintiffs are reviewing that proposal.

Johnson said he is still considering pursuing personal legal action against the university.

Read previous coverage