Federal court dismisses suit filed by fired student newspaper adviser

KANSAS — A federal district court has dismissed a lawsuit brought against two administrators at Kansas State University by student journalists and a student newspaper adviser who said he was fired because of the newspaper’s content.

Ron Johnson, currently a journalism professor at the university, was told by KSU officials in May 2004 he would no longer be the adviser of the Kansas State Collegian.

Todd Simon, director of the school of journalism at Kansas State University, later said Johnson had been dismissed as adviser, in part, because the “overall quality” of the paper had gone down. Simon had compared the Collegian to other comparable college newspapers, he said, and found it to be lacking.

Before Johnson was reassigned, the issue of diversity in the newspaper had become controversial after the Collegian did not report on the Big 12 Diversity Leadership Conference, a multi-cultural event on campus.

Simon said Johnson, who had been the adviser for over 15 years, failed to properly advise the students.

Johnson, former Collegian Editor in Chief Katie Lane and former managing editor Sarah Rice filed a lawsuit in June 2004 against Simon and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Stephen White, alleging their First Amendment rights had been violated and requesting that Johnson be reappointed adviser of the paper.

In the court’s order, filed June 2, U.S. District Court Judge Julie Robinson said Johnson had no standing to bring a lawsuit because his First Amendment rights had not been violated.

“Because Johnson exercises no control over the content of the Collegian, his right to freedom of the press was not at all affected by his removal as adviser to the Collegian,” Robinson wrote.

The court also concluded that Rice and Lane did not present a violation of their First Amendment rights because it was not specific stories that Simon had problems with, but rather the overall quality of the paper.

According to the court, “There are simply no factual allegations to support Lane and Rice’s claim that the removal of Johnson was due to the stories appearing in the Collegian and, thus, that as editors of the paper, their First Amendment rights to freedom of the press were implicated.”

Mike Hiestand, an attorney and legal consultant to the Student Press Law Center, said the ruling sets a dangerous First Amendment precedent.

“We are not aware of — and the court certainly doesn’t cite — any other case where a judge has ever bought into this concocted distinction between a newspaper’s quality and its content,” Hiestand said. “This ruling really lowers the First Amendment bar in a way that I think is going to shock — and absolutely should shock — a lot of people.”

The court also ruled that Simon’s criticism of Johnson’s behavior, which Simon claimed was another reason Johnson was being reassigned, did not violate Rice and Lane’s First Amendment rights.

Johnson said he, Rice and Lane have been in contact since the decision was released, and are waiting to see what their next move should be.

“Obviously we are very disappointed,” Johnson said. “We thought we had made a good case, and I still think we make a good case.”

Cheryl Strecker, senior associate university attorney for Kansas State University, said she was happy with the verdict.

“[The verdict] vindicates the university, the administrators and the process,” Strecker said. “The university did not take any action to censor the content of the Collegian or to control anyone’s freedom of expression.”

— By Rebecca McNulty

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