Administrators at Western Illinois U. suspend student editor from student newspaper for selling video of campus riot

ILLINOIS – The editor of Western Illinois University’s student newspaper was suspended from his job Thursday and could face further disciplinary action because he sold a video of a melee on campus.

On Dec. 12, a crowd started a brawl outside the university’s student union building after a Black Student Association-sponsored dance. Nicholas Stewart, the editor-in-chief of the Western Courier, captured video of campus police pepper-spraying the crowd, which he sold to a news organization and later posted to the student newspaper’s website.

On Thursday, Stewart received a letter from the university’s vice president for student services, which said he was being placed on “paid administrative suspension” from the paper because he sold the video to an off-campus news organization, creating a “threat to the normal operations of the university.”

According to the letter, Stewart cannot participate in the student newspaper until after a university judiciary committee hearing determines how the university should proceed.

That night after the brawl, Stewart posted the video to his account on Live Storms Media, a company he freelances for, he said, adding he used his own equipment to film the incident. Additionally, he said he identified himself as an LSM reporter in the video’s lower-third.

Several media outlets across the country bought the video from Live Storms Media, he said.

Even though the Courier had shut down for winter break, he also wrote an article about the fight for the Courier’s website and included a version of the video he published to his personal YouTube account. In the byline on that video, he identified himself as a Courier reporter. As of Friday, this version of the video had more than 58,000 pageviews.

“The video all the media outlets across the country have, they have the video that says ‘Nicholas Stewart, LSM,’” he said. “It has it has no connection to me with the Western Courier.”

On Dec. 15, Stewart was called into Vice President for Student Services Gary Biller’s office and questioned about his role in the fight, whether he filmed the incident with school-owned equipment and whether he was paid for the video. Stewart said he was told the Courier owned the video and he therefore owed the university any profits he made from his freelance work.

“I believe that they’re claiming I was working for the Courier at that point, and so I believe they’re claiming that I didn’t have the consent of the Courier to send that video in,” he said.

According to an email Biller sent Stewart on Friday, his actions had violated several sections of the student conduct code, including “committing acts of dishonesty” by representing the newspaper “without the explicit prior consent of the officials of that group.”

A university spokeswoman declined to comment.

Stewart said he believes he is being punished as a form of censorship “and I believe they’re attempting to silence me so that things like this don’t happen again.”

Although the newspaper does receive funding from the university, it is an independent student newspaper and is not affiliated with the university’s journalism department, Courier faculty advisor Richard Moreno said. The Courier’s offices are on campus, and about three-quarters of its budget comes from student fees.

Moreno said that although the Courier’s handbook does contain a section addressing freelancing, its language is vague.

“There’s a section in the handbook that basically says that you can freelance with permission, but it doesn’t say permission from who,” Moreno said.

The handbook does not specifically address multimedia or online journalism, and many of the paper’s photographers are hired on a freelance basis, Moreno said.

However, the publications board, a group of faculty and students who oversee the funding and operation of both the newspaper and the institution’s student magazine, will revise the handbook, Moreno said, because Stewart’s situation raised an issue they’d never encountered before.

“I’ve always tried to encourage people to freelance and do as much as they could,” he said, adding that journalism today is “all about creating your own brand.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Katherine Schaeffer by email or at (202) 974-6318.