Two cautionary tales for college presidents: Flout the First Amendment at your own risk

Oh, that First Amendment karma. When it bites back, it bites back hard.

Darrel Hammon of Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, Wyo., comes from the land of bighorn sheep. Raj Chopra of Southwestern College in Chula Vista, Calif., comes from the town of cougars. But they share a great deal in common — including, as of this past week, lots of free time to get together and commiserate.

Chopra stepped down as president of Southwestern on Dec. 2, ending a tumultuous tenure that included a no-confidence vote by faculty and a rare “probationary” accreditation by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.

Hammon resigned as head of LCCC on Nov. 29, having lost the confidence of many students, employees and trustees after a string of incidents including the mishandled dismissal of the school’s vice president for student services.

As the media filled with reports that their respective presidencies were unraveling, Hammon and Chopra did what embattled autocrats always do: attacked the media.

Hammon’s administration actually went to court on a bogus claim of student confidentiality, attempting to convince a judge to restrain a Wyoming newspaper from publishing a leaked internal investigation that reflected poorly on the president’s handling of a student’s suicide threat.

Chopra’s administration shut down the student newspaper, The Sun, on the dubious justification of a never-enforced contracting technicality. The order appeared “coincidentally” timed to suppress coverage of a fiercely contested Board of Trustees election in which Chopra loyalists were being challenged. (Cooler heads — and the law — prevailed, and the presses were allowed to roll after only one missed issue, enabling Sun readers to enjoy a front-row seat to Chopra’s final crash-and-burn.)

Insecure leaders whose grasp on power is uncertain almost invariably overreach to silence the independent media that give voice to their critics. It would be an overstatement to say that trampling on press rights was the cause of either president’s downfall. More accurately, such behavior is the danger signal of a bunker-bound administration spiraling toward flame-out. That’s the tactical flaw when presidents circle the wagons — they find out the hard way that the wagon they’re shooting at is their own.