Groups urge federal appeals court to reject Kansas State University’s removal of student newspaper adviser following administrative ‘content analysis’

An alliance of nine national student and professional news media and civil rights organizations led by the Student Press Law Center filed a brief Dec. 14 urging the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse a lower court ruling that upheld the dismissal of the adviser of Kansas State University’s student newspaper after the newspaper was charged by campus officials for failing to sufficiently cover “diversity” issues.

In a friend-of-the-court brief, the group says that the June decision by a Kansas federal district court judge will have a dangerous chilling effect on college student news organizations and “goes to the very heart of the First Amendment rights of student journalists on public college and university campuses.”

Editors of the Kansas State Collegian Katie Lane and Sarah Rice, along with newspaper adviser Ron Johnson, sued university officials last year after they removed Johnson from his position based on a “content analysis” of the publication conducted by the chairman of the school’s journalism department. Johnson had been adviser of the award-winning Collegian for 15 years and has been a national leader in the field of college journalism.

“If [KSU officials] can take punitive action against a student newspaper based on protected content decisions simply by justifying their action as based on the ‘overall content’ of the publication, no editor can feel safe,” the brief argues. “Today, the complaint of this university is concern about a lack of ‘diversity’ coverage. Tomorrow it could be concerns about insufficient coverage of a university administrator’s pet project or excessive coverage of campus crime. In any context, the district court’s holding is a recipe for diminished journalism and limited debate in an environment where free expression is most important.”

A team of attorneys from Alston & Bird in Atlanta – Adam Biegel, Paul Kaplan, Daniel Norris, Liz Day and Pam Lina – wrote and filed the brief on behalf of the organizations.

SPLC View: These are challenging times for college student media. Though it attacks from a different angle, this case, like the much-discussed decision in Hosty v. Carter, poses a serious threat to college journalists. Student editors can’t exercise their press freedom if they know making unpopular content decisions could mean their adviser will be out of a job.

A copy of the brief – which includes a full list of the organizations involved – is available at: