Tenn. student resigns from college newspaper, claims censorship in suspension from social media use

TENNESSEE — A sports writer for the student newspaper at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has resigned and is accusing his editors of censoring him after he was prohibited from representing the news organization on social media.

On Monday, The Daily Beacon reporter Wes Tripp’s friend posted a link on Facebook to a Beacon editorial that endorsed a state senate candidate and opposed an amendment, and Tripp commented he was upset with his colleagues. In his own post he wrote the paper’s position was “extremely contradictory” because The Beacon’s endorsed candidate supported the amendment when the paper opposed it.

As a result, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Claire Dodson, suspended him from social media activity associated with the paper for violating the organization’s social media policy.

Tripp said he resigned because he didn’t want to “work for an organization that takes away my ability to express myself, at least in a respectful manner,” not because he couldn’t use social media associated with the paper.

According to the policy, staff members may not write negative content about The Beacon, may not respond to derogatory comments without consulting the editor-in-chief and may not slander anyone they have come in contact with for work at the paper. The policy also says students should “tweet responsibly” and use “good judgement.”

“We’re a public forum, and we encourage debate,” but Tripp shouldn’t have made the disagreement with the endorsement personal by calling out his colleagues in a post, Dodson said.

Dodson said a former editor-in-chief created the social media policy last summer and based it off policies at other student publications, Reuters and The Washington Post.

Because Monday’s posts were his second violation of the policy, he could not include his Twitter handle in bylines or mention anything about The Beacon on social media, Tripp said.

Over the summer, Tripp made “potentially libelous” comments about a source on social media and was reprimanded, Dodson said.

Tripp said Beacon adviser Rachel McClelland, who declined to comment, was concerned about the posts he made over the summer, and he agrees that he should have been more careful about his comments online because he represents the university.

Tripp said The Beacon does not have the authority to censor his speech because it is controlled by a public university.

The latest incident was not “offensive or derogatory or malicious toward the editorial board,” Tripp said. “I was just expressing my disagreement at what The Beacon published.”

SPLC staff writer Anna Schiffbauer can be reached by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 127.