It’s a F.A.C.T.: Advisers need support, from the profession and the public, to withstand censorship

For those blessed with a lengthy tenure, few jobs offer the intangible rewards of advising the staff of a student news organization. There is the immediate satisfaction of watching creative young minds collaborate on a useful product that serves the public good. Then there is the longer-term gratification of following the developing careers of writers, broadcasters and photographers as they play out on the public stage.

At the same time, few jobs demand the ethical tightrope act that a successful journalism adviser must perform, as both an employee with a duty of loyalty to the employer as well as a buffer insulating, and at times advocating for, the student journalists whose reporting stings that employer.

Not everyone succeeds in navigating this minefield. Dozens of times a year, the attorney hotline at the Student Press Law Center rings with a call about a college or high school adviser who is on the verge of losing her job — or who just has — for nothing more than promoting solid, responsible journalism that hits too close to home.

Retaliatory discharges of advisers are deeply wrong. In any other context, the public would instantly understand and speak out.

If the government fired scientists to punish accurate scientific research, if the government fired doctors for giving honest public health warnings, if the government fired economists for candidly assessing the economy — those responsible for the wrongdoing would be held to account.

Punishment of journalism advisers for doing their jobs properly can never be allowed to become “business as usual.” It can never be greeted with a shrug. Every retaliatory action makes a difference — a huge difference in an individual educator’s life, and a small difference in the overall well-being of journalism — and every one must be counted.

That is why, starting today, the Student Press Law Center is launching F.A.C.T., the Fired Adviser Comfort Team — an online home for discussion about the occupational hazards facing those who advise student media at the K-12 and college levels.

The point person for coordinating and updating content for the site will be Thomas “T.R.” Hanrahan. Thom is everything that a college student should have in an adviser — a dedicated journalist and First Amendment true-believer who stands firm for the right of his students to pursue and publish uncomfortable truths. Because of this, he is currently without a job, the victim of a retaliatory discharge by administrators at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin. Last April, Missouri Southern administrators decided they were dissatisfied with the “direction” of the newspaper under Hanrahan’s coaching — the “direction” that won him accolades as Missouri’s adviser of the year in 2010 and his students’ newspaper, The Chart, a series of top reporting awards.

To be clear, not every adviser’s removal is quite so nakedly retaliatory and wrongful as Thom’s. Some situations are murky — bad personality matches, budget-motivated reductions-in-force. And if that is your situation, F.A.C.T. is there for you, as well.

We hope that advisers everywhere who are in fear for their safety will use the resources of F.A.C.T. to share information and get mentoring and guidance from those who, like Thom, have endured the worst that schools can dish out.

We also hope that each of you will help make sure that no adviser’s removal goes unnoticed and uncounted. Because change begins with awareness, and awareness begins with each of us.