Student newspaper adviser’s removal raises censorship concerns

NEW JERSEY — Ocean County College’s board of trustees voted unanimously Monday not to renew Karen Bosley’s contract as the student newspaper adviser, a move some said they believe is an act of censorship.

“The general consensus among the staff is that it is a complete and utter travesty,” said Scott Coppola, editor in chief of the Viking News. “The college, by removing her, is removing one of the key people in fighting for student rights, and by doing so, it’s an attempt to control the newspaper altogether and to censor us.” Bosley has served on the Student Press Law Center’s board of directors.

Bosley said she thinks she was terminated as the paper’s adviser because of a number of stories the paper has run criticizing the college’s president and his administration.

Among other things, Bosley said, students have criticized the cost of the president’s inauguration and the president’s decision to change the college logo.

But the conflict came to a head in November 2004 when the Viking News ran an article that published comments from those who criticized President Jon Larson of not surveying students or faculty before moving the afternoon activity period to a different time.

Student editors said Larson met with them and threatened to “take action” if the paper did not print a correction to the article saying he had surveyed people before making the scheduling change, according to an editorial Coppola wrote in the paper after the meeting.

In addition, Coppola’s editorial accused Larson of intimidating the staff and threatening student editors’ First Amendment rights by telling them they should “restrain what goes onto the opinion page,” the editorial said.

Faculty in the English department, including Bosley, wrote Larson a letter in light of the editorial, saying, “any attempt to manage the news, or to intimidate students whose views are expressed in the news, violates an essential American liberty.”

Larson responded to the faculty’s letter with one of his own saying, “your letter makes groundless and insulting assertions that condemn and demean my character and devotion to essential American liberties.”

In Larson’s letter, he confirmed that he and school spokeswoman Tara Kelly had met with Viking News editors about the scheduling story.

Larson said he did ask the students whether they had been properly advised or coached when they were “engaged in inappropriate journalistic practices” in writing the scheduling story, according to his letter. “It is the responsibility of a paid adviser to the Viking News to keep an eye on such things and offer sound advice.”

Larson went on the criticize the faculty for accusing him of censorship by intimidation, saying “I suggest that, in the future, rather than putting a signature on such an embarrassing diatribe you take five minutes to try to discover the truth, and perhaps talk to me, before you join those who would cook up so unseemly a communique in a vacuum of fact reflecting what can only be a willful absence of critical thought.”

The board decided not to renew three other professors’ contracts at Monday’s meeting as well, which some said was also a retaliation for the professors’ support of the student newspaper, according to an article on The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Web site.

Among them was Karen Veselits, an assistant professor of English and the only untenured faculty member to sign the letter to Larson, according to the Chronicle article. Patrick Mitchell’s contract also was not renewed. Mitchell is an assistant professor of mathematics whose mother is a tenured professor in the English department and has been a vocal critic of the administration’s handling of the student newspaper, the Chronicle reported. Veselits and Mitchell told the Chronicle that they are looking into their legal options and that they expect the New Jersey Education Association, a union affiliated with the National Education Association, to file an unfair labor practices complaint on behalf of the four professors.

College officials said the accusation of censorship is unfounded.

“That’s just silly in my opinion,” said Kelly, the college’s spokeswoman. “It has nothing to do with the students. It has to do with the adviser and her competence.”

Bosley, who has advised the Viking News for 35 years, said she received a letter in October from Assistant Vice President of Student Development Don Doran saying he would not recommend that she serve as adviser for the next academic year. She is still a tenured professor and will continue to teach at the college, but she has been reassigned from teaching journalism courses.

In the letter, which was provided to the SPLC by Bosley, Doran said administrators were unhappy with her request to purchase Macintosh computers for the newsroom because “the prevailing standard at newspapers nationwide is a PC based system.”

Doran also mentioned editing mistakes in the letter.

“These concerns include the use of different font sizes for bylines and stories, as well as the length of stories and the general layout and design of the paper,” according to the letter.

Bosley attempted to answer Doran’s letter at Monday’s board meeting.

In the meeting, she pointed to awards the Viking News has won from the New Jersey Press Association and the Society for Collegiate Journalists, according to an article in the Asbury Park Press, a local paper. She also quoted research showing that 75 percent of U.S. colleges use Macintoshes.

But Bosley said she does not take credit for the errors or the awards. Although she advises the students, they have the final say on content, she said.

Kelly said Bosley falsely asserted that her insistence on using Macintosh computers was the reason her contract was not renewed. But she did acknowledge administrators had asked Bosley to use other computers.

“We have asked her to incorporate PC learning in the journalism lab so they are prepared to work in any computer environment,” Kelly said. “Having an exclusively Macintosh journalism lab is not a good service to our students.”

Kelly would not elaborate on the competence issues administrators had with Bosley’s advising for privacy reasons and “for her protection,” she said.

“We encourage free press. The actions have no retaliatory motivation,” Kelly said. “We would never make an employment decision based on a student action…. We hope with a new adviser [student editors] will continue to shine their flashlight on the administration.”

But student editors said it may not be that easy.

“Student rights to free speech are almost nonexistent here at OCC anymore,” said Coppola, the paper’s editor. “The Viking News has been the voice of the students for almost 40 years, and with the removal of Karen Bosley, that voice will be silent.”

Bosley said she is considering legal action against the college.

“I am deeply disappointed in the action. It fires me to fight,” she said. “I have spent my entire career as an adviser trying to make sure people don’t infringe on student rights.”

by Evan Mayor, SPLC staff writer