In spring 2004, Kansas State Collegian adviser Ron Johnson was fired after the school’s journalism director reviewed the paper and said he found the overall quality to be poor. Johnson’s firing followed complaints on campus that the paper failed to adequately cover minority issues. Editor Katie Lane and Sarah Rice and Johnson sued the university claiming that the firing had a chilling effect on the newsroom and thus the actions violated the First Amendment.
The university contended that it had not removed Johnson because of the newspaper’s content, but instead because of its overall poor quality. A district court ruled in favor of the university, finding that content analysis that led to Johnson’s firing was not related to the paper’s content, only its quality. The students and Johnson appealed to the 10th Circuit, which is when the SPLC filed its brief.
The SPLC brief described Kansas State’s actions as “a case of censorship by proxy” and expressed grave concern about the chilling effect on student journalists that this decision could have throughout the country. If a journalism adviser can be fired over the student newspaper’s content, reporters could shy away from covering controversial issues.