California adviser placed on leave pending investigation; instructed not to talk

CALIFORNIA — Administrators at Pasadena City College have placed the student newspaper’s faculty adviser on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an investigation into undisclosed misconduct.

Assistant journalism professor Warren Swil, who has advised the Pasadena City College Courier since 2007, was instructed last Thursday to leave campus immediately.

Swil declined to comment, saying he was instructed not to talk about his leave. He referred questions to his attorney, Michael Anderson, who could not be reached for comment.

School officials have declined to elaborate on the nature of the misconduct allegation. In an official statement from the college issued Sunday, the school said the dismissal was “not connected in any way with Professor Swil’s duties as advisor to the student newspaper, The Courier, nor with his duties as a journalism teacher.”

In the absence of further explanation, faculty and students say they’re concerned that Swil’s quick removal might have to do with the newspaper’s coverage of the administration. Both the student government and an ad hoc faculty committee issued votes of no-confidence in President Mark Rocha’s leadership during the Board of Trustees meeting in March.

The source of suspicion is a routine visit by Rocha to a journalism class in which he “spent the time reaming them about their coverage and [said] that they’re not doing a good job,” said Mikki Bolliger, who advised The Courier from 1973 to 2007 and who is temporarily filling Swil’s advising and teaching duties.

“Two days later — whoops, the adviser’s gone,” Bolliger said. “I don’t believe in coincidences. This is too much of a coincidence.”

During the meeting with journalism students, Rocha dismissed the no-confidence votes as inaccurate and misleading opinions and addressed ways the college can “move forward,” Editor-in-Chief Nicholas Saul said. Rocha chastised the students and “talked down” to them for wrongly worded questions and unfair coverage, Saul said.

“There are a lot of good things that are going unreported,” The Courier quotes Rocha as saying to the students. “When there’s a conflict in the college, you have to be responsible and report the truth.”

PCC Faculty Association President Roger Marheine said in an email he’s never seen a president “cajole student reporters” as he did during the press conference. Marheine claims the school violated due process in removing Swil. Marheine said that Swil should have been notified of an allegation first and not placed on leave unless an investigation determined that there is credence to the claims.

He said the rushed dismissal reflects an attempt to chill student journalism by a college president who “now conducts himself in a reckless manner reflecting a desperation that could ultimately lead to his leaving the college.”

“In my personal view, the violation of due process also documents the actions of a college president who is desperate and clumsily attempting to regain the upper hand,” Marheine said.

Saul said it wasn’t clear whether the decision to place Swil on leave was tied to the paper’s coverage.

“They probably thought we were biased in some sense, but in my viewpoint we were just covering [the no-confidence votes],” he said, adding that students “slapped a big ol’ headline on the newspaper because it’s unprecedented.”

“As of now, I can’t really say the whole administration’s idea of our coverage had anything to do with putting him on leave,” he said. “But I’m sure some people may be happy about it.”

Saul also took issue with the suddenness of Swil’s removal and the lack of due process.

“I understand that once an official complaint is filed against a person, the school can’t ignore it,” he said. “But is there some sort of protocol that they have to tell them … or investigate the matter before doing it?”

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the gag order prevents Swil from properly asserting his innocence, even though the college has publicly named him as the subject of an investigation.

“Generally speaking, a broad gag order on a public employee is unenforceable under the First Amendment,” LoMonte said. “It’s unfair to order the employee to refrain from defending himself.”

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