10th Circuit rules in Kansas State adviser dismissal case

KANSAS — Former student newspaper editors who sued Kansas State University administrators when their adviser was fired in 2004 do not have a First Amendment claim because they are no longer enrolled in school, the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday.

The court ruled the claims of plaintiffs Katie Lane and Sarah Rice, both former Collegian editors, are now moot because “there is no reasonable expectation that Lane and Rice will be subjected, post-graduation, to censorship by defendants in connection with that paper.”

“This is something we’ve put energy and our heart into for three years now, so it’s definitely disappointing, confusing and frustrating to get this far and for our case to not even be heard on its merits,” Rice said.

And the court’s ruling is raising questions among First Amendment advocates about what it could mean for future cases.

“The court created a standard for mootness that makes it impossible for virtually any student to make a First Amendment claim because they will graduate before their case is concluded,” said SPLC Executive Director Mark Goodman. “It’s just plain wrong.”

In addition, the court noted that no current editors, who may have a continuing legal interest in the court’s ruling, were substituted as parties to the lawsuit. In ruling the case moot, the court also threw out the district court’s ruling that it was permissible for school administrators to fire an adviser based on the quality of the student newspaper.

Lane and Rice filed suit when adviser Ron Johnson was removed from his adviser position following allegations the paper was not sufficiently covering minority issues. University officials created a content analysis of the paper, which the district court found was a “significant” basis for Johnson’s removal.

Johnson was initially a plaintiff on the students’ lawsuit, but his claim was dismissed after the district court found he did not have standing and that his First Amendment rights were not violated “because he exercised no control over the content of the [Collegian].” Johnson did not appeal the decision.

Todd Simon, a defendant and the director of the Kansas State School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the time, has said Johnson was removed because Johnson’s advising was to blame for the “sub par scope and quality of new coverage.”

College Media Advisers’ Board of Directors voted in May 2004 to censure Kansas State, which it condemned for removing Johnson. An investigation by a CMA task force found that Johnson was removed from his position — despite high performance evaluations — because of officials’ complaints about the student newspaper’s content.

In September 2004, board members of the Society of Professional Journalists unanimously voted to adopt a resolution decrying Johnson’s removal as a “clear violation of the principles of free speech and a free press.” Support from SPJ board members came despite an SPJ task force report that was divided on the motivation behind Johnson’s removal.

Rice and Lane are considering their options, but their “initial thought” is that it might be best to appeal to the full appeals court on the issue of their legal standing, Rice said.