OREGON — CollegeMedia Advisers will no longer consider Western Oregon University a school thatinfringes on the rights of its student journalists thanks to a unanimousdecision by the group’s board of directors this month to lift a two-yearcensure.
In January 2009, CMA censured WOU after the universityfailed to renew former adviser Susan Wickstrom’s contract in 2007.
The student newspaper — the Western Oregon Journal — came under fire that year when itdiscovered and reported an online security breach.
A student copy editor of the Journal discovered a breach that allowed access to students’private information such as Social Security numbers and reported it to theuniversity. After that, the Journal alsoran an article about the breach.
University officials ordered an after-hours search of the Journal newsroom — without notifying thestaff — to find any copies of theinformation leaked by the security breach. Wickstrom kept a hard copy of theinformation locked in her office and refused to turn it over to universityadministrators. Soon after, her contract as the adviser for the Journal was not extended.
Wickstrom never returned to her position at WOU, though CMAcontinued to monitor the student press environment at the university.
“[Wickstrom’s firing] was the one thing that broughteverything to a head. You had an administration that is going into a newsroomand it is searching for information that it says is the university’s, when tous it isn’t,” said Mark Witherspoon, former CMA president and a leader of CMA’sadviser advocacy program.
The CMA board of directors decided to lift the censure afteran investigation “concluded that conditions for student media at WOU appear tohave improved considerably,” according to a CMA press release.
The advocacy program — led by Witherspoon and formerCMA president Ken Rosenauer — took in reports from student journalists andfound a burgeoning student press that maintained a healthy relationship withits administrators, Witherspoon said.
“Everyone I havetalked to there said there have been no attempts at censorship or priorrestraint since that incident,” Witherspoon said. “I talked to presidents,students, advisers, professors and many others and the program is going as itshould.”
The university administration expressed regret for itsactions, specifically vowing to never search the newsroom unannounced again,Witherspoon said.
Frank Ragulsky, a member of CMA who was a newspaper adviserfor 42 years, visited WOU and the Journalin fall 2010 to check the pulse of the student media at the university.
“I talked with the adviser, students and otheradministrators and I found it to be a good environment,” Ragulsky said. “Ithink [the adviser] is on the right path to help those students. They areengaged in their learning environment there and they have acceptable facilitiesfor their newspaper.”
The Journal hasbeen under the advisement of Shelby Case, who has been in the newspaper andmagazine industry for 19 years, since 2008.
“The paper has a new adviser that is professional,”Witherspoon said. “The problem is that we had lost a great adviser. It lookslike the program has turned back around and the administration respects thestudent journalists — why they do what they do and how they do what they do.[Case] is teaching real journalism.”
Case said he is looking to ensure fair journalism is all thepaper produces.
“I don’t have a problem with controversial journalism. Itjust has to be fair and balanced. They have to get it right,” he said.
The reason for censure
A public reprimanding of a university for actions the groupconsiders harmful to students’ First Amendment rights is the last step for CMA.
Witherspoon said CMA looks to educate a university throughpanels, on-campus discussions or the development of student media operationsand procedures.
“Censure is the last step. When minds have closed, that iswhen you have to use the censure,” Witherspoon said.
Since the inception of the CMA’s advisor advocacy program in1998, the group has censured nine universities across America. Of those nine,CMA has lifted five censures from: Western Oregon University, Barton CountyCommunity College, Kansas State University, Oklahoma Baptist University andFort Valley State University.
Four colleges are still listed as censured by the CMAincluding Morgan State University, Mount St. Mary’s University, LeMoyne Collegeand Ocean County College.
“[CMA] educates people on what the students in that programget from learning to be a journalist. The critical thinking skills, the abilityto talk to complete strangers and running a complex news organization — thoseare all huge educational benefits,” Witherspoon said.
Where to go from here
Along with the addition of Case, a student media board thatis responsible for hiring staff now oversees the Journal while the paper’s student editor has the authority to make“appropriate and legally supported” content and staff decisions, according to aCMA release.
“I think things are a lot better than they were. We now havea strong, vibrant media board,” Case said.
Case said the newspaper is in the process of moving from itscurrent location to one within the Werner University Student Center, a move hesees benefiting the visibility of the Journaland KWOU, an online radio station.
Case said progress between the student media andadministration is obvious at WOU.
“Bottom line, the administration made some mistakes and thestudent media made some mistakes,” Case said. “I think the kids are doing a great job now. I am hearing good things on campus about it.”