Although it has been three years since Ocean County College settled a First Amendment lawsuit brought by three student journalists, former staff members claim most of the settlement terms were never met.
After Karen Bosley was fired from her position as adviser to the student newspaper, The Viking News, in December 2005, students Alberto Morales, Scott Coppola and Douglas Rush filed a lawsuit against the university claiming their First Amendment rights had been violated and calling for the college to reinstate Bosley as adviser.
The settlement terms laid out several requirements, most notably Bosley’s reinstatement as adviser and the creation of a Student Media Advisory Board composed of leaders of student media on campus, faculty advisers, other student body representatives, and a member of the local professional media.
The board’s sole function would be to approve budgets, select editors-in-chief of the student publications and act as a resource to student journalists, according to the settlement. Since 2007, when the agreement was reached, Bosley has been fired again and the advisory board has been created in name only, she said.
”The settlement established a broad framework for who’s to serve and how they’re appointed, etc.,” Bosley said. ”It didn’t establish the day-to-day rules for the board. The president says to people that we have a media board, but they’ve never had a meeting; they’ve never picked an editor.”
When Morales obtained legal representation to attempt to enforce the settlement agreement, a college attorney insisted that a board exists and has been performing its intended functions. However, the settlement called for Bosley to be a member of the media board, and she was not notified of or invited to any meetings up to her second dismissal at the end of the 2009 school year.
Bosley recently made a public records request for the minutes or agendas documenting any board meetings held since the time of her dismissal, but the college has produced no documents.
Bosley believes the newspaper staff’s investigative journalism– primarily directed at OCC President Jon Larson and his administration–is what got the Viking News in trouble in the first place and is also the motivation behind the administration’s termination of her contract.
Attempts to contact the college were directed to Tara Kelly, vice president of college advancement at OCC, who did not return multiple calls for comment.
Morales, a former Student Press Law Center intern who served as editor-in-chief at the time of the controversy, said he and his staff worked to expose the corruption they saw happening at OCC.
”All of this began because we wrote stories,” he said. ”We were doing hard, investigative work, and I was doing it because I saw that there was a problem that needs to be solved. Ultimately, none of that got solved.”
Since a new adviser to The Viking News was appointed and new editorial leadership has been established, Morales has seen a drastic change in the newspaper. The Viking News, a newspaper whose content once relied heavily upon investigative reporting and hard-hitting news, has now become what Morales calls a PR sheet for the administration.
”It’s not a student paper anymore. Ultimately the lawsuit was trying to prevent the death of The Viking News. But it’s dead,” Morales said. ”When I was there, a lot of us sacrificed our time, our jobs, our families, sometimes even classes, in order to make sure we fulfilled the ultimate goal of telling people what’s going on in this college. Everything that used to be right at The Viking News is wrong now.”
However, spring 2010 news editor Bil Facciponte wrote in an editorial that the paper has received great reviews from students and faculty, and that it continues to be written ”by the students, for the students.”
He also criticized the former staff members for continuing to inject themselves in the paper’s business.
”Why they feel compelled to make any judgment or even be concerned with the current state of the newspaper is beyond me,” Facciponte wrote.
Bosley is still pursuing a separate lawsuit she filed against the college on the basis of age discrimination and retaliation.
”[Other advisers] need to fight censorship wherever and whenever it happens, and they need to be more vigilant than we were because we didn’t know we had to be in seeing to it that court orders are obeyed,” Bosley said. ”But I think we fought as hard as we could.”
The newspaper’s current adviser, Garry Shaffer, did not respond to a request for comment.
Although the students won the court case, Morales feels that they lost the larger battle.
”We had an amazing case,” he said. ”When you look at the facts, look at the case, we won. But none of those things [in the settlement] were imposed, so in the end we really lost. It was never about money–it was about protecting student media and the rights of any journalist.”
By Sommer Ingram, SPLC staff writer