Administrators scrap 'veto power' policy after free speech questions raised

ILLINOIS — Administrators at a community college are back-pedaling this week after changes to its student newspaper’s handbook gave greater editorial control to the faculty adviser. Revised editions of the handbook made the faculty adviser a voting member of the paper’s editorial board with “veto power” over the staff’s content decisions.

A statement released Friday afternoon said the handbook was never approved by the executive administration at Illinois Central College. John Avendano, vice president of student affairs, said administrators hold no veto power over The Harbinger, the college’s tri-weekly student newspaper.

Avendano said the “veto power” language would be removed from the policy immediately, according to an article in the Peoria Journal Star.

“That’s contrary to First Amendment rights,” said Avendano in the statement. “It’s contrary to good journalism, and it’s contrary to good education.” But student press advocates in Illinois said they are wary of the college’s swift reversal and question the motives of administrators and faculty who wanted to change the handbook in the first place. Harbinger Editor in Chief Dawnell Zeine echoed their concerns and said the changes are related to controversial articles published in the paper over the last year.

A history of conflict with student journalists

Current Harbinger adviser Michael Gray has had run-ins with student journalists at a previous teaching post before coming to Illinois Central College.Officials at MacMurray College in Jacksonville, Ill., confirmed that Gray was an employee there for a semester more than five years ago.Gray wrote about his ill-fated experiences as a faculty adviser to the Bagpipe, the twice-monthly student newspaper at MacMurray, in a first-person column for The Chronicle of Higher Education.In the February 2001 column, Gray wrote that certain “events” compelled him to fire the student staff and then “eliminate the paper altogether to create a new, better one.””Such steps might seem dramatic, but I acted only after the student staff members declined my instructions to write stories with bylines,” he wrote.Gray goes on to describe how the student journalists responded by handcuffing themselves to the school’s flagpole and pushing the administrators to consider their case.

Click here to read Gray’s column in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The problems began in January, Zeine said, when Michael Gray, an English professor who had been on sick leave the previous semester, became the new faculty adviser.

Zeine said arguments erupted when Gray insisted on cutting back the paid hours of newspaper staff and asserting that the newly presented handbook was the final word.

“He was telling us that it was written in stone, that he was the final authority,” she said.

At one point, Gray threatened to cease production of the newspaper, she said.

Zeine also made an audio recording of a March 7 staff meeting where Gray, upset that she had brought a list of talking points for the meeting, became “furious,” she said.

In the recording, Gray repeatedly asks her, “Do you doubt I have the power to fire you?” she said.

At one point, Zeine said she looked straight at him and replied, “Yes, I do doubt that.”

Gray did not return calls for comment.

Seeking outside advice

After growing increasingly frustrated with Gray’s control, last month the student editors contacted Ira David Levy, a journalism professor at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago and president of the Illinois Community College Journalism Association.

At first glance, Levy said he chalked up the tension to personality clashes between regular staff and a new adviser. But when the handbook changes came to light, “we took a tougher stance,” he said.

The wording about veto power and greater adviser control was “terrible” and “frightening,” he said.

“It does suggest there is an attempt to control the content to some degree,” Levy said. “My feeling is that this is an adviser who is not yet educated in student press rights and probably the First Amendment.”

Avendano said executive administration was reviewing the handbook all over again, and that the review process was “starting from square one.” He said reviews of the handbook should be completed next week.

On Friday, Avendano told the Peoria Journal Star that the handbook presented to student editors was only a “working draft” and not a final policy. But Michael Foster, retired journalism professor at Illinois Central College and former adviser to the Harbinger for more than 30 years, said he had seen the handbook, and that it looked like a final document. Gray’s version of the handbook had a ring binder and a glossy cover, he said, and “did not look like a draft.”

Foster said that Jill Wright, an English professor at the college, helped Gray to write the new handbook.

Wright declined to comment, and directed questions to the college’s public relations department. Avendano said that Gray was the author of the handbook, and that after it was drafted, Gray presented a copy to Wright.

Zeine, the paper’s editor, said at one point Gray told the newspaper staff he made changes to the handbook after he was asked to do so by Wright. “I don’t know if it was her idea, or if it came from higher up,” she said.

Avendano said changes to the handbook were originally made to update a manual that had not been revised in 14 years. It was “pretty outdated on a number of scopes,” he said, especially in regard to technology instructions.

But Zeine said she suspects the changes to the handbook are a response to at least two controversial articles published in The Harbinger in the last year. Zeine said she wrote an article last February about a student who ordained himself via the Internet to use cannabis for religious purposes. In May 2005, another editor wrote a story about a string of robberies at an apartment complex on campus. The articles, she said, were “not pleasant for administration,” and that following their publication, “a hammer came down from the administration.” She said college staff refused to speak to them for several subsequent articles.

Moving toward a “public forum”

In a Peoria Journal Star article from Saturday, Avendano said he would consult attorneys about naming The Harbinger a public forum, therefore exempting the publication from a recent federal court ruling, Hosty v. Carter. In that decision, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in August that university officials have greater authority to censor school-sponsored speech by public college students and faculty, including speech in some student newspapers. Student journalists in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana could be affected by the ruling, unless their universities officially designate student publications as “public forums.”

Levy, the president of the Illinois Community College Journalism Association, said there was a connection between the Hosty decision and the immediate outcry at Gray’s attempts to exert greater control over The Harbinger.

The association is holding a statewide convention this week, Levy said, and discussion about Hosty is sure to make the agenda.

“It’s important to get language in writing as to the nature of [student] news media, to be named an open forum and to make sure their First Amendment rights to publish are recognized by administration in handbooks or in school catalogues,” Levy said.

Avendano said it was never the college’s intent to control the newspaper’s content.

“Ask the students, have we ever censored them?” he said. “From the college’s prospective, we’ve never restricted anything they’ve wanted to write.”

Foster, the former Harbinger adviser, said the student editors’ response to the recent problems has been “courageous and dedicated.”

“The right answer for the college is to declare The Harbinger what it always has been, a true student newspaper and a public forum,” Foster said. “It’s something that never turned up because it was taken for granted.”