Federal court dismisses suit filed after Kansas State University fires newspaper adviser; students appeal

Student journalists have appealed a June federal district court ruling that dismissed their lawsuit against administrators at Kansas State University who they claimed fired their student newspaper adviser because of the newspaper’s content.

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

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

Before Johnson was reassigned, the issue of the newspaper’s coverage of diversity issues had been criticized after the Collegian did not publish a story after the Big 12 Diversity Leadership Conference, a multi-cultural event on campus.

Johnson, spring 2004 Collegian Editor in Chief Katie Lane and fall 2004 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 district 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.

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.

In July, Rice and Lane filed an appeal with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit. Johnson decided not to appeal the ruling.

SPLC View: This is a dangerous decision whose outcome required a real stretch of logic. We are not aware of – and the district court certainly didn’t cite – any other case where a judge has ever bought into this concocted distinction between a newspaper’s “quality,” which the court said was fair game for administrators to evaluate and take punitive steps to correct, and its content, which the court said was off-limits to administrators. The ruling could seriously weaken both the free speech rights of college journalists – who will now be forced to defend against an administrator’s vague claims about their publication’s poor “overall quality” – and the job security of advisers, who are, the court acknowledged, still prohibited from controlling the content that accounts for such alleged poor quality.

The SPLC will file a friend-of-the-court brief in this case, which is expected to be heard later this year.