MISSOURI — Administrators at Missouri Southern StateUniversity in Joplin have launched an investigation to decide whether DerekSkaggs,* student enrollment director, violated the Chart, the studentnewspaper,staff’s First Amendment rights after he banned the paperfrom a career fair for a story about declining enrollment.
John Messick, vice president of academic affairs,* is heading theinvestigation. He said Skaggs thought the article was inappropriate for arecruiting event and painted the university in a negative light.
The annual event took place Oct.8, on-campus, inviting area high schoolstudents to get information about local colleges and universities. MSSU providedrepresentatives from various organizations and departments. Rhonda Clark,the student magazine adviser,* represented the communications department.
Alexandra Nicolas, editor in chief of the Chart, said Clark showedup carrying the newspapers, when Skaggs approached her and told her not to putthe papers out because the content was inappropriate.
Clark told the Chart staff what happened, and Nicolas began toquestion why the information was “deemed inappropriate.”
Nicolas contacted the Student Press Law Center and the Missouri PressAssociation for guidance.
Nicolas said the staff’s First Amendment rights were violated whenSkaggs decided the paper should not be distributed.
“Historically, we’ve never had any serious issues with theadministration,” said Nicolas. “This is why it’s sosurprising.”
She said the censorship was not intentional, but rather a bad mistake bySkaggs.
Bruce Speck, MSSU president, assigned Messick to look into the situation.The communications department and student enrollment services are meeting withMessick to discuss the issue.
“Dr. Speck asked me to investigate what happened and to make surenothing like this happens again,” said Messick. “I have started thatbut haven’t finished.”
Messick said the college fair was in the auditorium on MSSU’s campusfor the purpose of providing information to prospective high school students.The Chart was an item the communication department chose to distribute asa sample of what students could be involved with in that department.
“We’re wanting to recruit students, not scare them away,”Messick said. “At this point the controversy has gotten out ofhand.”
Messick said the situation could have been handled by allowing Clark tosubstitute a different edition of the paper.
SPLC’s legal advocate Adam Goldstein said although the substitutednewspaper would have replaced the content disseminated to prospective studentsand pleased Skaggs, the students First Amendment rights still would have beenviolated.
“You can’t avoid liability for censorship by showing how much speechyou don’t censor,” he said.
News outlets in Missouri picked up the story after the Chartpublished an online editorial about the situation Oct. 8.
“We’re kind of in front of the pad instead of behind,”said Nicolas. “Our point is to make a statement that we hold the FistAmendment sacred.”
CORRECTION, 10/17: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Derek Skaggs as Steve Skaggs, John Messick as vice president of student affairs, and Rhonda Clark as newspaper adviser. The SPLC regrets the errors. Return to story