CMA issues 'letter of concern' about student media at W. Oregon

OREGON — After a year beset with conflict — ranging from an online security breach to the ousting of an adviser toallegations of First Amendment violations — members of the journalismcommunity at Western Oregon University are ready for a fresh start.

And College Media Advisers is ready to help.

The CMA issued a letter of concern last week for the health of studentmedia at Western Oregon University and offered to work with administrators tocreate a better environment for student journalists.

The organization investigated Western Oregon University’srelationship with student media following Susan Wickstrom’s removal as thestudent newspaper’s adviser. Wickstrom became entangled in controversywhen members of the paper’s staff discovered and reported about unsecured,sensitive student information on the school’s Web site.

The CMA concluded that university officials’ handling of the securityinvestigation last summer indicated a lack of understanding of the basicphilosophy and principles that guide student media advisers and a lack ofknowledge about journalism ethics. University computer technicians searched theJournal newsroom after hours to search for copies of the data, andofficials determined the staffer involved in discovering the security breachviolated computer policies. One policy prohibits “accessing clearlyconfidential files that may be inadvertently publicly readable.”

The CMA said the after-hours search compromised the newspaper’scredibility because journalists cannot perform their public service function ifsubjected to searches by the people they are covering. It added that theresulting punishments seemed to blame staffers for informing the community aboutthe breach.

“We’re very interested in working with WOU in helping them toestablish an environment that is healthier for student media,” said KenRosenauer, president of CMA. “And some of what’s involved with thatare opportunities for helping educate administrators about appropriate studentmedia operations and relations.”

A secretary for the university’s president, John Minahan, said he hadno comment.

Because Wickstrom does not want her position back, CMA will focus onworking with school officials to develop better policies regarding theirengagements with student journalists, Rosenauer said. Since CMA developed itsadviser advocacy program in 1998, it has censured seven schools for wronglyremoving advisers and issued statements of concern for four institutions,including last week’s letter to Western Oregon University.

“We want to extend an offer to the university president and thecommunity that will hopefully ensure that when next they have some kind of issueinvolving student media, they handle it differently, more appropriately,”he said.

First clash

Trouble began a year ago when student Blair Loving, newly hired to serve asa copy editor, inadvertently discovered a College of Education file containingstudent Social Security numbers and other sensitive data on a public universityserver. He downloaded the file and took it to the Journal’s

editor-elect Gerry Blakney. Blakney gave Wickstrom a copy of the data totemporarily store in her desk so that it could be used as a reference for futurearticles about the breach.

“What Susan Wickstrom did in many respects was she protected thatinformation and protected that sensitive data,” Rosenauer said.”Without clear guidelines to the contrary, indicating she should have donethis or done that, she seemed to follow a common sense approach.”

University officials said they dismissed Wickstrom because she mishandledconfidential information by failing to immediately turn over all copies of thedata.

But the local Society of Professional Journalists chapter praised herconduct. The organization honored Wickstrom last month with the First FreedomAward, which is given to those who demonstrate exemplary service to the FirstAmendment.

The society “felt strongly that for her courage and her integrity,Susan Wickstrom should be honored,” Nick Budnick said in an e-mail to theStudent Press Law Center. Budnick serves as the Sunshine Chair for the Societyof Professional Journalists’ Oregon and Southwest Washington chapter andgave the speech delivering her honor. “It seemed to us that she worked tofoster and protect the practice of watchdog journalism — and paid a pricefor it,” Budnick wrote.

Wickstrom said the award was bittersweet gratification.

“It validated my compassion for the First Amendment and it made merealize that all the journalism community, in Oregon at least, believes thatstudent presses should be independent, especially at a public campus,” shesaid. “For it to end the way it did was deeply disappointing for me,because I learned so much there and I will always have the students in myheart.”

Tensions rise

After Wickstrom left her post, an interim adviser took over. The copyeditor was nearly expelled, and problems continued for Journal staffers– beginning with a disagreement between them and administrators over aphrase below the newspaper’snameplate, reading “StudentOwned and Operated, Reporting the Unabashed Truth.” The vice president forstudent affairs objected and asked the adviser to change the phrase, arguing theOregon State Board of Higher Education actually owns the newspaper. But staffersdid not comply, and administrators dropped the issue.

In November, when the school conducted a “Fall Preview Day” forabout 400 prospective students and their families, conflict again ensued.

Associate Provost David McDonald said he turned copies of the paperupside-down or mixed them in with other materials to prevent younger siblings ofprospective students from seeing that week’s front-page article, whichfeatured a frontal, nude photo of the men’s rugby team with their genitalsobscured. But Blakney said McDonald removed Journal copies fromdistribution bins altogether. McDonald later apologized in a published letter tothe editor, saying he failed to follow university policy in the matter.

High tensions between administrators and Journal staffers escalatedwhen Blakney learned the interim adviser and other school officials werediscussing changes to the student media bylaws without input from students orthe Student Media Board. He issued a public plea for help.

“I am writing to you out of desperation,” he said in athousand-word, campuswide e-mail sent in January. “Our First Amendmentguarantee of a free press is coming to an end.”

Blakney went on to detail the Journal’s confrontations withschool officials over the school year, saying the administration had”completely taken control of the student press” by undermining thestudents’ free-press rights.

University President Minahan followed with another campuswide e-mail,announcing he had appointed an ad-hoc committee to investigate Blakney’sallegations.

“As I see it, no university can afford to be confused aboutfundamental issues of what is true and what is false when it comes to afundamental right like free speech,” Minahan wrote.

Allegations challenged

The Ad-hoc Committee on Free Press — consisting of three facultymembers and a local professional journalist — issued its report onBlakney’s four main allegations in April, concluding, “theaccusations of First Amendment violations were made recklessly.”

The security breach investigation was badly handled, but not illegal, thecommittee wrote. The committee additionally said the administrator who requestedthe nameplate change was legally justified in doing so; the committee also foundadministrators made no official changes to the Student Media Board bylaws,though they acted inappropriately by taking it upon themselves to developimprovements for what they deemed to be an ineffective Student MediaBoard.

“This was not a case of knights running to the rescue of the FirstAmendment, which is was we expected. But it wasn’t,” said DickHughes, the editorial page editor of The Statesman Journal who served onthe committee. “I just expected that I’d be riding up to the fierycolumns to stand up for the First Amendment and the students, writing editorialsand the like, and that just wasn’t the case.”

The seven-page report largely concluded that administrators respondedineptly and heavy-handedly in multiple situations over the year, whichillustrated the dysfunctional relationship between the newspaper and theadministration with a poorly operating Student Media Board. The committee foundthe allegations of free-speech and free-press violations “unfounded”

— and Blair Loving, the copy editor involved in the first security breachincident, agreed.

He said like much of the Journal staff, he resigned before the endof the school year.

“A lot of people just got tired of it and didn’t want to beinvolved in this little war Gerry [Blakney] was having with theadministrators,” Loving said, noting he felt as if Blakney was using thepaper to anger those who had angered him.

Blakney did not return several voicemail and e-mail messages requestingcomment over the past two weeks.

Loving issued his own campuswide e-mail in response to Blakney’sinitial plea, but his began: “I am writing you in clarification.”

Loving then contradicted much of his co-worker’s allegations, sayinghis understanding was that Wickstrom did not have her contract renewed becauseshe was believed to have “misled” administrators during the securitybreach investigation. He also contested each of Blakney’s allegations andexpressed concern about the lack of oversight for the Journal.

Wickstrom, though declining to comment specifically in response toLoving’s e-mail, said she believed she was protecting students’

rights to gather information throughout the ordeal.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, saidany time students feel a chilling effect on free speech, there is a FirstAmendment violation.

“It’s difficult to see how students can be reckless in claimingthat they don’t feel safe exercising free speech,” Goldstein said.”It really doesn’t matter whether they don’t feel safe becauseof malicious intent of a pattern of blunders by administrators. A schoolcan’t deflect a claim of a First Amendment violation by pointing out theywere only incompetent, rather than evil.”

Like the College of Media Advisers, Wickstrom and Loving both said they areconcerned about the state of student media at Western Oregon University but aretrying to move on.

Said Loving, “I’m just really ready to put this all behindme.”