KANSAS — A federal district court has ruled that the removal of Ron Johnson, former adviser of the student newspaper the Collegian at Kansas State University, was not a violation of the student editors’ First Amendment rights because he was removed due to the ‘overall quality’ of the paper and not specific stories.
The court also ruled that Johnson’s First Amendment rights were not violated because he does not have any control over the content of the paper.
Katie Lane, Sarah Rice and Johnson sued the university in June 2004 after Johnson was dismissed from his position as adviser. Rice and Lane are former editors of the Collegian.
Lane and Rice say they believe the case is important and needs to be appealed. The appeal was filed June 5.
“We believe so much in the freedom of the press — including college newspapers — that we cannot let this decision stand,” Lane and Rice said. “We have filed an appeal in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and hope the appellate court will have the wisdom and courage to restore collegiate journalists’ rights.
“The national attention this case has received indicated how crucial the outcome is to the future of collegiate journalism.”
Johnson would not say why he is not continuing with the lawsuit, but said he fully supports Rice and Lane in their efforts to have the ruling overturned.
“This transcends Ron Johnson,” Johnson said. “It’s about my reassignment obviously, but there are larger issues that come into play and dangerous precedents that have been set that go beyond me.”
Johnson added that he was proud Rice and Lane will be continuing on in the lawsuit.
“They’re standing up for their rights and for the rights of college journalists all across the country,” Johnson said.
Rice and Lane said in the statement the decision needs to be overturned because of its potential effect on college journalists.
“The decision approves a form of censorship by state college administrators that absolutely should not be tolerated,” read the statement. “If government officials can retaliate against student journalists for the decisions they make about the content of a newspaper that has always been independent, then we have lost sight of the values of freedom of the press that this country was founded upon.”
Cheryl Strecker, senior associate university attorney for Kansas State University, maintains that the school did not fire Johnson in order to control the paper’s content.
Johnson was told in May 2004 that he would no longer be the newspaper’s adviser but would stay on in the journalism school. Todd Simon, director of the school of journalism, later told him that he was being dismissed as adviser because the “overall quality” of the paper had gone down. Simon said he had compared the paper to other college newspapers and found it to be lacking.
Johnson and the students claim his dismissal stemmed from another incident where the Collegian did not report on the Big 12 Diversity Leadership Conference, a multicultural event on campus. Simon has denied it was the absence of the diversity story that cost Johnson his job.
Simon claimed the paper was lacking in its overall content and therefore Johnson was not doing his job as adviser and was reassigned.
It was the difference between the content and the overall quality of the newspaper that made the difference in the lawsuit’s dismissal.
U.S. District Court Judge Julie Robinson said in her ruling that because Johnson was fired because of the overall quality of the paper and not specific articles, Rice and Lane’s First Amendment Rights were not violated.
However, Robinson noted that the recommendation to remove Johnson was based “in significant part” on a content analysis of the Collegian.
Yet the court concluded, “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.”
Mark Goodman, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the court’s decision is “confounding.”
“After recognizing that the content analysis was key to the action taken against Johnson, the judge went on to say ‘the court cannot conclude that Johnson was not reappointed because of the content of the Collegian,” Goodman said. “By definition, a content analysis is based on content.”
Robinson’s distinction between content and overall quality has some media advisers, including College Media Advisers President Kathy Lawrence, worried about the ruling’s impact.
‘When a major public institution delivers us this ruling that says the administration may reassign or dismiss an adviser because they are unhappy with the overall quality with the publication … some administrators may say ‘that’s great,’ and you’re going to have some administrators going after student media,’ Lawrence said.
CASE: Lane v. Simon, No. 04-4079-JAR, 2005 WL 1366521 (D. Kan. June 2, 2005).
Marquette advier’s firing stands after SPJ inquiry
WISCONSIN — Tom Mueller has run out of options. After being fired as adviser to Marquette University’s student newspaper the Marquette Tribune in January, Mueller fought to get his job back.
He appealed to several organizations, including the Society of Professional Journalists and a faculty organization at the private school, asking them to look into his dismissal.
A Society of Professional Journalists task force released a report in May saying they did not think the university fired Mueller specifically because they wanted to censor the newspaper. Instead, they said, a series of ‘miscommunications’ between the paper, Mueller and administrators were the reason Mueller was fired.
According to the report “much of the strain between Mueller and the administration seems to stem from the administration’s concern that something in the paper will get the university sued.”
The administration and the paper clashed over a story that included the name of a faculty member with tuberculosis and a story that ran the off-campus address of an apartment where a sexual assault allegedly occurred.
Dave Aeikens, region 6 director for the Society of Professional Journalists and chair of the task force that investigated the situation, said the members of the task force did not feel the school was blatantly trying to censor the newspaper.
“We didn’t get the impression the university was going out of its way to keep students from writing certain stories,” Aeikens said.
However, Kathy Lawrence, president of College Media Advisers, wrote in a dissenting report that she believed Mueller should not have been fired.
“[Mueller’s] treatment serves as another message to advisers everywhere that their jobs are at risk when students do the kind of aggressive reporting we hope journalists do in an open society,” Lawrence wrote.
The task force report also listed changes the university should make to improve relations with the school and the newspaper, such as writing student media bylaws for the student media board and writing a job description for the adviser.
“We think if [university officials] follow our recommendations they will avoid future problems,” Aeikens said.
Marquette spokeswoman Brigid O’Brien said the university is in the process of creating a student media board and writing bylaws.
Mueller, however, said he thought the report was too narrow and not clear-cut.
“Their question was, ‘Is Marquette University trying to take over the paper?” Mueller said. “It should have been, ‘Did they get rid of this adviser because they didn’t like what was in the student paper?”
After the report was released Mueller took his case to the Committee on Faculty at Marquette, which handles faculty grievances. Mueller said his complaint was rejected because he was neither tenured or a tenure-track faculty member, although the committee called for the university to rework some of its policies toward faculty who are not tenured.
With the rejection of his grievance complaint, Mueller said he has no options left to fight his dismissal.
“I’m just going to have to look for another job,” Mueller said.