As Albion Pleiad regains publication rights, editor still questions dean’s decision to suspend

MICHIGAN — Nick Diamond’s happy to have his news outlet back. Now, he wants more answers.

On Monday, the editor of Albion College’s online student news organization got the news he’d been holding out on for more than a week: After a nine-day suspension imposed because of errors in an article about a student’s death, The Albion Pleiad could resume publication.

In a letter to readers, Diamond said he’s relieved and ready to get back to work — there are stories backlogged from three missed editions last week, after all. But he remains troubled by an official’s decision to shut down his publication over a single story.

Vice President for Student Affairs Sally Walker suspended the news organization Feb. 2 pending the completion of a review, spokeswoman Sarah Briggs said last week.

“We’ve had a really difficult week as student journalists,” Diamond, who was only several weeks into his term as editor when the situation flared, said in an interview. “I would still like an explanation as to why the administration believes it can implement a moratorium on student publications and, specifically, what policies say that they can.”

Walker’s notice about the reinstatement came several days after Diamond and other Pleiad representatives met with the college’s Media Board, which oversees student media organizations, to discuss the Pleiad’s fact-checking processes and answer other questions about the situation.

Walker couldn’t be reached for comment, but Media Board chairman John Thompson II confirmed the decision to reinstate the Pleiad.

“After a review and development of some new operating procedures for the Pleiad, the college’s Media Board, which oversees student media, recommended to [Walker] that the moratorium end,” Thompson wrote in an email. “Walker accepted their recommendation.”

Albion College is a private school, which means that the First Amendment doesn’t protect student journalists the same way it would at a public college. At private schools, the relationship between a student media organization and the institution is contractual instead.

According to a set of Media Board guidelines dated Jan. 27, 2014, the board has the power to suspend or withdraw a student media organization that’s found in violation of the college’s student publication guidelines. The guidelines do not explicitly say that the dean can suspend or withdraw a student media organization — and that, said Diamond, is his issue in this case.

The guidelines address students’ responsibilities to “verify statements of fact and statements and quotations attributed to specific people” and uphold “accuracy, objectivity and fairness,” among other expectations. In the past, according to an older copy of the rules, the guidelines could be changed or revoked with a vote from two-thirds of the Media Board. The Jan. 27 guidelines state that changes now requires “a majority vote of the members of the Media Board only after approval by the Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students.”

Diamond, echoing concerns raised last week, said he tried to stress to the Media Board that professional news organizations also commit serious errors from time to time — but they haven’t been forced to shut down entirely as a result.

“Why can Albion College shut down my publication if CBS News doesn’t shut down 60 Minutes?” Diamond asked, referencing the show’s mistakes in an October report on Benghazi.

Moving forward, Diamond said the Pleiad’s planning several changes to guard against future errors. From now on, he said, staff members can’t post stories to the content management system’s dashboard until they’ve been fact-checked, and a new note will appear internally in the headlines of posts to indicate that they’ve been vetted. The Pleiad will also strengthen its fact-checking training procedures to include semester refreshers with all staff members, instead of just targeting new reporters or only holding the sessions on an annual basis, Diamond said.

Diamond, for his part, also plans to publish a column in the coming days to voice concerns over the Pleiad suspension and what he sees as an overreach of authority on the part of Walker.

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