Western Illinois U. editor reinstated after suspension for freelancing video of campus brawl

ILLINOIS — Administrators at Western Illinois University lifted the student newspaper editor’s suspension Monday — nearly two weeks after they removed him from his job because he sold a video of campus police officers’ response to a fight.

Nicholas Stewart received an email from Vice President of Student Services Gary Biller’s office Monday evening, notifying him that his suspension had been lifted, reinstating him as editor in chief of the Western Courier.

“Given the lack of guidance available regarding Western Courier policies and procedures, I am lifting your suspension immediately,” the letter said, “and I will inform the publications board of this action.”

On Dec. 12, Stewart filmed campus police pepper-spraying a group of students after a fight broke out on campus following a Black Student Association Dance. That evening, he uploaded the video to Live Storms Media, a company he freelances for, and to his personal YouTube channel.

On Jan. 22, Stewart was barred from participating in the student newspaper because selling the video posed a “threat to the normal operations of the university,” according to a letter Biller sent the student editor. He was placed on paid administrative suspension until the university’s judiciary committee determined whether he should receive further punishment.

Stewart and Chicago attorney Gabriel Fuentes, who became involved in the case through the Student Press Law Center’s Attorney Referral Network, scheduled meetings for Jan. 28 with the newspaper’s publications board and the university’s auditor.

The publications board, a group of faculty members, media professionals and students that oversees the Western Courier’s budget and operations, set a second “emergency meeting” for Feb. 4, to discuss Stewart’s case. The university’s auditor failed to show up to a planned meeting later that day, Stewart said.

In reaching a decision to lift Stewart’s suspension, the Division of Student Services, which oversees all student organizations at the university, determined the Courier‘s freelancing policy is vague, university spokeswoman Darcie Shinberger said. Therefore, the board determined Stewart’s suspension was unfair.

“The review process really did bring to light that the operations policy was in need of an update and that it would not be fair to keep Mr. Stewart under that interim suspension and not allow him to do his job if the policy was not as detailed as it should be,” Shinberger said.

Student Services is now working with the publications board to revise the policy, she said.

Updating Western Courier policy is a responsibility the publications board and Western Courier editors share, Stewart said. He said he would like the policy to clarify that freelancing is acceptable and beneficial for Courier staff members.

“It’s my goal to make it incredibly clear that freelancing is not only allowed, but that it’s encouraged, and I will fight for that, to make sure that other students have the potential to freelance,” he said.

After news of Stewart’s suspension broke, several groups came to his defense, including the Illinois Broadcasters Association, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Student Press Law Center.

SPJ President Dana Neuts sent a letter to WIU president Jack Thomas on Thursday, defending Stewart and encouraging the university to “reinstate him immediately” as editor.

Stewart “should be commended for taking the initiative to do journalism,” Neuts said in her letter. “It would have actually been unethical for him, as a journalist, to see this breaking news story and not cover it and publish it via whatever means possible.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Katherine Schaeffer by email or at (202) 974-6317.