INDIANA — Calling it a “clear violation of the principles of free speech and a free press,” more than 20 board members of the Society of Professional Journalists voted last month to condemn a former student newspaper adviser’s firing as a violation of the First Amendment.
The resolution was accepted at the organization’s annual convention in New York on Sept. 12. The Society of Professional Journalists, with approximately 10,000 members, is the nation’s largest organization of working journalists.
The board members voted unanimously to accept the resolution, despite a report from an SPJ task force that expressed divided views on Kansas State University professor Ron Johnson’s reassignment. This report will be posted on the SPJ’s Web site.
In May 2004 Johnson was reassigned from his position as the adviser of the Kansas State University Collegian following controversy surrounding the newspaper’s diversity coverage. In July, Johnson and former Collegian Editor in Chief Katie Lane filed a lawsuit against the university, which is still pending. Shortly after hearing about Johnson’s reassignment, the SPJ assigned a task force to investigate the case. The SPJ regularly sends task forces to campuses when student media issues arise.
In the report, task force members Samuel Adams, professor emeritus at the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, and Florestine Purnell, a Washington, D.C.-based magazine editor, said Johnson’s reassignment was based on legitimate grounds, citing evidence that seven of eight tenured faculty members did not support extending Johnson’s year-to-year contract. The decision to reassign Johnson had to do with the quality of his news advising, Adams and Purnell said.
“In our view, a publications adviser is not performing ethically or professionally if he does not affect the content of a student publication,” Adams and Purnell wrote in their report. Kansas State University’s multicultural community did not trust Johnson to be a fair and balanced source of news and analysis, they said.
“In addition to the rights of free press, there’s also responsibility,” Purnell said. “And if the students don’t know enough to address their responsibilities then … somebody should guide them towards doing that and I didn’t see that happening.”
In their report Adams and Purnell also included a quotation from the Student Press Law Center: “It is contrary to the free-speech principles in the First Amendment for a government agent such as a public university to attempt to control the future content of an independent student publication by removing its adviser.” If the SPLC’s assertion was blindly interpreted, universities would create a system of keeping ill-performing advisers in their posts, Adams and Purnell said.
But SPLC Executive Director Mark Goodman said the members misinterpreted the SPLC’s recommendations.
“The Student Press Law Center has never suggested that an adviser cannot be removed for failure to meet the obligations of their job. What we have maintained in the past, and will continue to defend, is the principle that a student publication cannot be punished, whether by removal of an adviser or some other means, based on content choices that student editors have made,” he said.
“It’s disappointing that these task force members are willing to defend [KSU’s] action,” Goodman added.
Two other task force members, Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell, a freelance writer and writing instructor in Kansas City, Kan., and Chairman Neil Ralston, assistant professor of journalism at Northwestern State University in Louisiana, said Kansas State University did violate the First Amendment by reassigning Johnson.
According to Fivecoat-Campbell and Ralston, KSU journalism school director Todd Simon’s “content analysis,” in which he compared the Collegian’s content with newspapers at other universities before reassigning Johnson, clearly shows the university’s violation of the First Amendment. Since content censorship is unconstitutional, and Simon’s content analysis was the basis for Johnson’s firing, such an analysis was illegal, Fivecoat-Campbell and Ralston said.
Fivecoat-Campbell and Ralston said this case could have serious repercussions for student journalists. If student editors believe an adviser can be removed because of their newspaper content, they will be more cautious in the future because they will worry about angering the administration, they said.
“I don’t think that’s a feeling that journalists in this country should have,” Fivecoat-Campbell said.
Tasha Braggs, a senior at Northwestern State University and the only student on the visit team, abstained from the decision.
Shortly after the Big 12 Diversity Leadership Conference, the president of KSU’s Black Student Union said the Collegian had consistently failed to provide adequate diversity coverage. Minority students protested the level of coverage given to the conference and asked for Johnson’s resignation.
Ralston said he thinks the division between the members of the visit team was a result of whether to base their conclusion on Collegian’s alleged failure to diversity issues or the First Amendment.
“Some members of the committee were focused more greatly on the diversity issue [at] Kansas State,” Ralston said. “I was looking closely at both issues.”
Fivecoat-Campbell said she did not think the First Amendment issue was necessarily more important than the diversity issue, but that she thought the two had to be separated.
“Diversity issues have to be tackled once the First Amendment rights are guaranteed,” she said.
But Adams did not see the conflict between the two issues. “In this case, my finding was that no First Amendment rights were denied,” Adams said.
Braggs, who is black, also said that since the team decision was divided along racial lines, she did not want to seem biased. Adams and Purnell are black. Fivecoat-Campbell and Ralston are white.
Fivecoat-Campbell said she does not think the racial division of decisions regarding the case was coincidental. “I don’t think that [Ralston and I are] not understanding of these issues, I just think that maybe more personal experience had something to do with that,” she said.
Adams disagrees. “I in no uncertain terms reject that my ‘paint job’ colored my decision-making,” he said. “I have been against ‘black issues’ in many cases. In this case it wasn’t a ‘black issue.'”
Former SPJ President Mac McKerral said there was no reason for diversity issues to take precedence over the First Amendment.
“You can improve that environment for diverse coverage through educating and training people about diversity,” he said. “But by firing an adviser, you are not guaranteeing that anything will get better.”
McKerral said Kansas State University is “sending a message to campus administrators near and far that they can get away with this.”
“If you don’t like what’s in that student newspaper, just can the adviser,” he said.
Ralston said he was satisfied with the SPJ’s resolution, adding that it sends a message to media organizations that support student journalism.
“Ultimately, if the news media want their young reporters to know how to work beyond the influence of business and government, they need to do more to protect the independence of journalists at the high school and college levels,” he said.
Read previous coverage
- Court revokes order that blocked Kansas State from removing newspaper adviser News Flash, 7/15/2004
- Federal court orders Kansas State to temporarily reinstate dismissed adviser News Flash, 7/7/2004
- Interim adviser named for Kan. student paper; groups censure university News Flash, 6/16/2004
- Kan. university removes adviser after complaints about diversity coverage News Flash, 5/11/2004
- Minority students say Kan. adviser should resign because of lack of diversity coverage News Flash, 4/12/2004