Saint Louis U. student journalists now operate under more restrictive guidelines, editors say

MISSOURI — The student newspaper at Saint Louis University is operating under a new charter — one that administrators, newspaper editors and student government leaders created after days of disagreement, discussion and, ultimately, compromise.

The nine-page charter, which replaces the one drafted in the late 1990s, requires an administrator to approve the hiring of all section editors and gives the university president control of approving all amendments to the charter.

“It’s prior restraint if ever I’ve seen it,” said Avis Meyer, longtime adviser for The University News.

University officials say the charter was created to improve the quality of the University News and to ensure that the publication offers a “respected, responsible voice to SLU students, faculty and staff.”

“Some people suspect it had to do with control,” said Clayton Berry, the director of university communications. “It didn’t.”

But incoming Editor in Chief Katie Lewis said the private school is trying to control the newspaper.

“What [administrators] were wanting to do was to hire and fire editors,” Lewis said. “But really, they were just picking people that say nice things about the school.”

Lewis also said university officials are trying to pressure Meyer, a tenured professor of journalism, to leave the paper. He and Saint Louis University President Lawrence Biondi have a history of conflict, she added.

“They do not get along,” Lewis said. “Everyone knows it.”

Meyer said the conflict exists because, while he has been adviser, the newspaper has printed several articles that have upset the administration, including an editorial that accused Biondi of plagiarism.

“They want to get rid of me,” Meyer said of administrators. “They canceled my stipend: $1,500 a year. They’ve replaced me four times with ‘official advisers.'”

Spokesman Berry said no one from the university administration was available to comment on Meyer. He also said he did not know whether the newspaper production adviser, which the charter calls for, had been named or whether Meyer was a candidate.

“The university’s only intent was to revitalize the newspaper so that it can become a publication of which all SLU students, faculty and staff can be proud,” Berry said. “The new charter will help accomplish that.”

Student Government President Andrew Clifton, who worked with Lewis and the administration to write the charter, said it was clear, based on the quality of the newspaper, that the students in charge needed more guidance from professionals.

“No one blames the students,” Clifton said. “They weren’t getting the resources they needed or deserved.”

The charter requires the newspaper have a media adviser and a newspaper production adviser, who will guide students and ultimately help the paper, Clifton said.

Lance Speere, president of the College Media Advisers, said the charter gives too much power to the president, who has sole control of amendments to it.

“You’ve created the illusion that [students are] in control, but they are operating knowing full well that the administration is in charge,” Speere said.

Student editors first learned that administrators wanted to update the charter during an April 30 meeting in which the provost and the vice president for student development met with the editorial board. Meyer said the announcement came nine months after the university cut in half the editor in chief’s tuition remission.

At the meeting, the provost presented a charter that gave school administrators, instead of the paper’s editorial board, control of hiring the editor in chief, Lewis said. Editors at the paper were not consulted before the policy was written, she added.

Meyer said the students were furious and considered moving off campus to become completely independent from the school, thus avoiding the charter. But editors soon realized the newspaper could not afford an off-campus office and they would have to accept a new charter, he said.

In a closed meeting May 5, the university’s Board of Trustees was scheduled to approve the charter that administrators had written. Lewis said several newspaper staff members gathered outside the meeting to protest.

Feeling pressure from the editors and other students including the student government association, the board did not vote but instead announced a 10-day period during which students could make comments, suggest changes and lodge complaints about the charter, Lewis said.

But this 10-day period was bad timing for students, Lewis said, because it was during finals week. The chaos of trying to study and draft a charter at the same time caused her to give in more easily than she would have otherwise on certain issues, such as the president’s sole power to amend the charter, she said.

“I had four [two-hour] meetings with the incoming student government president and the provost during finals week, which is terrible timing,” she said.

President Biondi signed the final draft of the charter May 16, but administrators have agreed to revisit the policy in one year if students are unhappy with the results, Lewis said. The final draft allows the editorial board to appoint the editor in chief and requires a two-thirds vote of the board to fire the editor, according to the charter.

“The charter we’ve ended up with is something that I think we can work with,” Lewis said. “But it’s not perfect. It was a collaboration between the two sides.”

By Jenny Redden, SPLC staff writer