Winthrop student reporters say trustee tried to limit questions, took reporter's cell phone

SOUTH CAROLINA — Student editors at Winthrop University say their reporting on their new president has prompted what they see as harassment from a trustee.

Kathy Bigham, the vice chairwoman of Winthrop’s Board of Trustees and the chairwoman of the school’s presidential search committee, verbally accosted two students from The Johnsonian earlier this month who were reporting on the visit of a presidential candidate earlier this month and confiscated one of their cell phones, Managing Editor Kaitlyn Schallhorn said.

When Jayne Comstock, the last of four presidential candidates to visit the small public school, was greeting students in the school’s cafeteria, the trustee approachedSchallhorn and Shamira McCray, the paper’s news editor. Bigham questioned the credibility of articles Schallhorn wrote about the candidate’s controversial past and told them not to ask any questions about it, Schallhorn said in an interview.

Comstock has since been chosen unanimously to serve as the school’s 10th president despite some concerns expressed byWinthrop faculty about a libel lawsuit her previous institution, Butler University, filed against a student blogger in 2009.

The suit claims the blogger “harmed the honesty, integrity, and professional reputation” of Comstock, who was Provost at the time of filing. However, during visits at Winthrop, Comstock distanced herself from any direct involvement, and Bigham has publicly clarified that Butler filed the lawsuit and not Comstock personally.

Schallhorn said while Bigham admonished them for not being fair to Comstock, McCray was recording audio with her iPhone. The two had been interviewing students and the recorder was still running.

The trustee “freaked out” when she realized she was being recorded, Schallhorn said.

“There were about five students who came up to us and asked us if we were being kicked out of school or in trouble or something because she was yelling so loud,” Schallhorn said.

McCray said she called former Johnsonian adviser Larry Timbs for advice about the state’s laws on recording conversations. That’s when Bigham said, “Let me talk to him” and took the phone from her.

“When she heard me say ‘Dr. Timbs,’ she grabbed the phone from me, she started fussing at him and saying ‘Is this what you teach your students?’” McCray said.

Bigham could not be reached for comment.

Rebecca Masters, assistant to the president for public affairs at Winthrop, said Bigham told the students to hold their questions until later but would not discuss whether Bigham physically took the phone.

“I understand how the student can have that perception, but I also know [Bigham] as a very careful and considerate trustee and who is the soul of courtesy in everything that she does,” Masters said. “She would not take a phone out of a student’s hands.”

Masters described the situation as a misunderstanding in which both parties were acting in their own interest. Bigham was trying to expedite the candidate’s visit while the reporters were exercising their legal right to question and record the candidate, she said.

She said Bigham did not know that South Carolina is one-party state — meaning only one party of a conversation needs to know a conversation is being recorded. She confirmed Bigham requested the reporters ask Comstock the same questions they asked other candidates so “readers will have a basis for comparison.”

In its Feb. 14 weekly edition, The Johnsonian published a news story about the incident and an editorial claiming the university had censored them and promising to stand up to the “slew of intimidation” the paper’s staff face from administrators.

“We refuse to back down,” it read. “We refuse to let them dictate what we can or cannot report on. And we refuse to let them put a damper in our passion for uncovering the truth.”

The administration has consistently requested that the students not ask questions about the suit, according to Guy Reel, the paper’s faculty adviser.

“[The students] were repeatedly told that they, the board, wanted every candidate to be treated the same,” said Reel, who said he was teaching class at the time of the incident but talked to the students later in the day. “I told the students that was absurd because no two people are alike. There are different issues, different backgrounds, different points of view. So that’s an absurd view.”

Schallhorn said there’s a history of high-level administrators calling the paper about what it “should and should not write, based on ethics.”

“It’s always been like that, depending on the people on staff and the level of stories they write,” Schallhorn said, adding that administrators are more open when there are less “hard stories.” “It’s already closed up again. It’s hard to get in touch with people or have them call you back.”

She said she’s made several calls to Bigham for unrelated stories but hasn’t heard back. While she wants to open a dialogue with the administration, she said, she doesn’t know if it will work out before she graduates and a new group of students move into leadership positions in the paper.

“My main concern is the newspaper and we can get the stories we need every week without any harassment,” Shallhorn said.

Reel said he’s not sure what will happen under the new president, depending on the whether the administration will allow the students the freedom to do their job.

“We’re hoping for the best,” he said. “I will say publicly that any new president is going to receive criticism and close scrutiny by the student press and whoever it happens to be needs to be prepared for that. That’s the role of the student newspaper.”

By Daniel Moore, SPLC staff writer. Contact Moore by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.