Changes to Western Oregon media board on hold after editor’s public plea

OREGON — A plan to change the rules that govern student mediaat Western Oregon University — without input from students or the StudentMedia Board — is on hold after the student newspaper’s editor in chiefmade a public plea for help in opposing the changes.

In a campuswide e-mail sent Tuesday, University President John Minahanannounced that he had appointed a panel to investigate allegations by GerryBlakney, editor in chief of the Western Oregon Journal, that schoolofficials were undermining student free-speech and free-press rights by seekingto “secretly” change the media board bylaws. Minahan appointed two facultymembers to the panel, along with the editorial page editor of the StatesmanJournal, Salem’s daily commercial paper.

“As I see it, no university can afford to be confused about fundamentalissues of what is true and what is false when it comes to a fundamental rightlike free speech,” Minahan wrote.

Blakney told the Student Press Law Center that he learned Jan. 11 that thepaper’s interim adviser, English professor Curtis Yehnert, was discussingchanges to the student media bylaws with Vice President of Student Affairs GaryDukes. Blakney said Yehnert would not tell him what changes were being proposedand instructed him to talk to Dukes directly. Dukes declined to reveal theproposed changes at a meeting later that day between Dukes, Blakney andJournal managing editor Ashley Erb, Blakney said.

Dukes, in an e-mail to the SPLC, confirmed that he “wanted to talk with thePresident one last time about our proposed changes” before releasing them.

The next day, Blakney sent a mass e-mail to students, faculty, statelegislators and outside activists, among others. The subject line: “I am writingto you out of desperation.”

“Our First Amendment guarantee of a free press is coming to an end,”Blakney wrote. In the message, Blakney argued that the media board’s existingbylaws require the board itself — made up of four students, a facultymember, a university staffer and a member of the professional media, amongothers — to approve any changes, and he urged recipients to calluniversity administrators.

The administration’s actions amount to “completely tak[ing] control of thestudent press,” Blakney wrote.

Dukes, in an e-mail to the SPLC, challenged Blakney’s interpretation of themedia board rules. He acknowledged that the rules require amendments to beratified by a two-thirds majority of the board but said the board ultimately isresponsible to his office. He also cited repeated instances of the boardviolating its own rules, including by meeting without a quorum and failing tomeet once a month, as required. The board has not met at all this school year,and Dukes said it has not kept to its schedule for at least five years.

“So we have not had a properly functioning board for quite some time,”Dukes wrote. “My intent was to get that board back on track.”

He said he and Yehnert had proposed three changes to the Student MediaBoard’s membership. The first would replace a university staffer appointed bythe Vice President for Finance and Administration with a faculty memberappointed by the president. That would mean two faculty members would serve; theother faculty member, as in the current system, would be appointed by thefaculty senate. Another change would allow any board member to head the board’sfinance committee, rather than requiring the staffer appointed by the financialvice president to fill that role.

The most significant change, however, would alter how the four studentboard members are appointed, allowing the deans of Western Oregon’s twoundergraduate colleges to appoint two members each. Under the current system,student members are chosen by a committee of the adviser and the student leadersof campus media outlets.

That change would eliminate what Dukes called a conflict of interest,compounded by the fact that, in the past, student board members often haveworked simultaneously for student media outlets.

“How does this set up an objective board when students from the studentnewspaper are on a board designed to oversee the student newspaper, their workon the student newspaper, and the work of their boss, the editor in chief of thestudent newspaper?” Dukes wrote.

Erb, the Journal‘s managing editor, said she understood the concernabout student members having a conflict of interest in the existing system, butshe suggested that a better solution would be to have a different group ofstudents appoint the student members, rather than eliminate all student inputinto the selection of board members.

“We’re just really discouraged that they’re making changes without anyoneknowing,” Erb said.

The Journal has had several other run-ins with administrators overthe past year.

In June, Journal staffer Blair Loving discovered confidentialinformation for dozens of students exposed on a public university server. Lovingand Blakney immediately told the university what they had found but made a copyof the data to refer to while writing an article about the breach. They gave thefile to adviser Susan Wickstrom to lock in her office. School officials orderedthat all copies of the file be turned in, then conducted an after-hours searchof the newsroom — without informing Journal staffers — in aneffort to retrieve the files. The school also fired Wickstrom and nearlyexpelled Loving, allegedly for mishandling confidential information andviolating the school’s computer-use policy.

Other disputes arose this year, including allegations that AssociateProvost David McDonald removed some copies of the Journal fromdistribution bins on Preview Day, a day for prospective students and theirfamilies. McDonald said he had only turned copies of the paper upside-down ormixed them in with other materials. He said he wanted to prevent young siblingsof prospective students from seeing the cover of that week’s issue, whichfeatured a full-frontal photo of the men’s rugby team in the buff, althoughtheir genitals were obscured. The photo accompanied a front-page article aboutthe team’s tradition of “zuluing,” or players stripping after scoring theirfirst point. McDonald later apologized in a letter published in theJournal.

Yehnert, who was appointed as an interim adviser to replace Wickstrom, saidhe began thinking about revising the Journal‘s governance after he”started having real problems at the newspaper.” In particular, he said hefeared some articles bordered on “slanderous,” citing as an example theJournal‘s coverage of the missing issues on Preview Day. He calledallegations that McDonald had actually removed papers “a lie,” and said hethinks the paper’s coverage has been colored by Blakney’s “absolutesingle-minded hatred of the administration.”

But in retrospect, he said, he now thinks it might have been better toallow the media board to reconvene under its current rules to consider anychanges.

State Rep. Vicki Berger (R-Salem), whose district includes Western Oregon,received Blakney’s original e-mail and said she was “heartened” by Minahan’sdecision to appoint a panel to investigate Blakney’s claims.

“I feel like the president was serious in trying to get it out of hisadministration and get it back where it belongs, which is in an independentreview of the issues,” Berger said.

She noted that the school’s actions, if the allegations are true, mightviolate at least the spirit of Oregon’s student free-expression law, which tookeffect in July and was intended to give greater independence to high school andcollege media.

Said Berger, “I hope this gets resolved fairly and quickly, so we don’thave to write a new law around these things.”

By Michael Beder, SPLC staff writer

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