Media advisers face pressure from school officials over editorial content

“Something’s wrong. They didn’t say Christina’s name,” Marcia Roi said after the Clark College Board of Trustees chairwoman read off the names of the college’s newest tenured faculty. And then, the chair announced to the board Christina Kopinski, Clark’s only journalism professor and adviser to the student newspaper, would be denied tenure.

Kopinski’s record was clean and her tenure committee recommended her to the board with a unanimous vote for approval, according to Roi, who is the faculty union president at the Vancouver, Wash., college. 

So it came as a surprise to Kopinski, Roi and the journalism students that she had been denied job security. The decision by the board equated to her losing the job she had come to love over the past three years.

Roi and Kopinksi said the board has not given an explanation.

One of Kopinski’s students and the Independent’sEditor-in-Chief Audrey McDougal, said the members of the newspaper’s staff began to suspect their investigative reporting was to blame.

McDougal said she remembers the administration getting upset when the newspaper ran a story about the school’s fire extinguishers not being up to code. She said an administrator told Kopinski the students should not concern themselves with such matters.

“I can’t think of any other reason why they would deny her tenure,” McDougal said. 

“I immediately came to that conclusion, a lot of us did.”

The situation at Clark is reflective of cases across the country bringing the issues facing student media advisers — like job security and ethical practice — to the forefront of journalism education.

Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center, said it is not uncommon for administrators to control student media by removing the adviser. He called it a “creative sort of censorship.”

With administrators straying away from interfering directly with students, advisers sometimes become pawns, being forced into an ethical quandary.

“A part of that is the realization on the part of administrators that the law is protective and doesn’t allow administrators to go after the publication itself or the student editors,” Hiestand said. “The adviser is an easy target.”

In June, Denise Brown became that easy target.

Officials at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md., chose not to renew Brown’s contract when students failed to reveal to administrators their sources and evidence in stories detailing the misuse of student funds.

Brown, like Kopinski, believes she is being targeted by the administration in retaliation for student speech.

After the stories were printed in a February issue of the Spokesman, Brown was sent a memorandum in June by Floyd Taliaferro III, director of the university student center and student activities, informing her that renewal of her contract would depend on whether her students met with him individually to discuss their sources. Her students never met with Taliaferro.

A week later, Brown was told in a letter her contract would not be renewed, effectively firing her by the end of the month. 

The administrator who wrote the letter did not provide a specific reason why. Brown said she is considering legal action. 

Efforts to reach school officials  for comment were unsuccessful. However, a Morgan State spokesman told the Baltimore Sun newspaper Brown was “more or less out of control” and said the matter was a personnel decision.

Brown said that during her time advising both the newspaper and yearbook, she never received an evaluation and her removal does not make sense. 

“For six years I put in the blood, sweat, tears and money … in an effort to enhance the program,” Brown said.

Brown, who calls herself a “casualty of war,” said she is hoping that she may return to her role and continue building the program at Morgan State if and when things are settled.

The debated role of advisers

The role of advisers exists in a state of legal and professional limbo. They are typically paid out of the pocket of those whom their students may criticize. The adviser is hired to teach ethical journalism, sometimes investigative in nature, while also serving as a member of the institution’s faculty.

The College Media Advisers Code of Ethics for advisers states advisers should steer clear of modifying student work if it “robs student journalists of educational opportunity and could severely damage their rights to free expression.”

Although advisers have a role that may be clearly defined as hands-off, they may still find themselves held accountable for student work.

Chris Evans, student media adviser at the University of Vermont in Burlington, said administrators will look to advisers to improve student media, and when that does not happen, there is no one else left to blame for it but the adviser. Evans writes a blog about student media advisers and their roles on campus and in the newsroom.

“We are expected to improve the quality of the paper. That’s why we’re hired,” Evans said. “When the paper doesn’t get better, the administration looks to us.”

The legal rights of media advisers

The legal rights of advisers vary slightly from state to state depending on employment standards. Some advisers, like Kopinski, are hired specifically to teach journalism while others perform the duty apart from being a full-time professor or staff member.

State laws typically favor employers, and although many contracts contain some sort of due process, administrators can still successfully remove advisers, according to Hiestand.

Some states have enacted laws preventing instances like Brown’s or Kopinski’s from happening. 

In September 2008, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed such a measure into law. California joined  Kansas, which has a similar statute that protects school employees from being targeted by administrators for student speech.

The California law protects high school and college employees from being “dismissed, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred, or otherwise retaliated against” for acting to protect student speech.

Jim Ewert, legal counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, said the law has helped advisers in the state feel less vulnerable, but he said there are still concerns advisers can still be targeted.

“Does it mean an administrator can’t come up with another excuse? No,” Ewert said.

Ewert said unless advisers are employed in one of the few states with protection, they can find themselves without a legal defense when the administration attempts to punish them.

In Kopinski’s case, Ewert said he assumes she would have a retaliation claim against the college if she was in California, but since Washington does not have a comparable law, she may have to fight it some other way.

“The difference is in a state that doesn’t have such protections, teachers can’t make that claim,” said Ewert.

In states without legal protections, organizations have formed to defend and support advisers who may be wrongly removed from their duties. 

For advisers at the college and university level, CMA has adopted a procedure that puts pressure on offending schools to take responsibility for their actions after being censured and condemned for taking questionable actions against media advisers.

Since the policy was adopted in 1998, CMA has censured eight schools.

CMA President Ken Rosenauer said censures are issued when attempts at resolution fail. The CMA often sends members to mediate conversations between the adviser and school officials. Rosenauer said that while CMA shows interest in coming to a peaceful resolution through mediation, schools sometimes will not agree to it. 

In Brown’s case, CMA offered to send Evans to speak with school officials at Morgan State but they have not accepted the offer, according to Rosenauer.

The CMA policy states the organization may respond to instances that include “threats of or actual job reprimand, demotion, reassignment, or dismissal as the result of an adviser’s unwillingness to abridge students’ First Amendment guarantees, for advocating or teaching student press rights, or as retaliation for material disseminated by the student press.”

According to long-time advisers, the best way to combat tricky misconceptions is to educate colleagues of the adviser’s purpose.

Evans said part of an adviser’s job is to teach the campus, including the administration, about the limits of advising. Evans said it is not uncommon for staff and other faculty to misunderstand the position of the student media adviser.

“Advisers have to be seen as teachers and not as editors,” Evans said. “Many, many administrators, co-workers and people just don’t get that.”

Both Brown and Kopinski, who are now unemployed, say all they can do is wait — wait for the opportunity to get back to their position beside the students. 

Brown, who calls herself “savvy enough to handle the administration and hip enough to handle the students” said she hopes her students will use their resources and continue asking questions and reporting the way she taught them.

Kopinski left her students with a piece of advice about the administration she hopes they will take to heart: “Don’t let them intimidate you.”