Federal lawsuit alleges Northern Michigan U. student newspaper board violated adviser’s free-speech rights in termination

Editor’s note: This story was updated to include comment from a university spokesman. 

MICHIGAN — In an attempt to get her job back, the ousted student newspaper adviser at Northern Michigan University has filed a federal lawsuit against members of the newspaper’s board of directors, arguing her termination violated her free-speech rights.

The suit, filed on Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, also claims the board violated The North Wind Managing Editor Michael Williams’ First Amendment rights when it voted not to hire him as the newspaper’s next editor in chief, even though he was the only applicant for the job.

According to the complaint, the board’s April 3 votes were part of a “campaign of intimidation motivated to punish and chill student journalists’ investigative news reporting about the university.” Attorney Paul McAdoo, who is representing North Wind Adviser Cheryl Reed and Williams, said much of the students’ reporting “did not always paint aspects of North Michigan University in the most positive light.”

The suit asks the court to retain Reed as the adviser and for the board to not consider content or viewpoints expressed in the paper when considering Williams — or any applicant — for editor in chief.

The suit names four of the five student board members and Steve Neiheisel, the university’s vice president for enrollment management and student services. The board also includes a local journalist, a faculty member and Reed.

“It’s unfortunate that these defendants are four students, one is an administrator,” Reed said. “I do not relish what they may be going through. At the same time, there are thousands of other students on this campus whose access to public documents, whose knowledge is going to be hampered if these First Amendment violations are upheld.”

In a statement, university spokesman Derek Hall said the university does not believe the student board members or administrators engaged in any wrongdoing, adding that he hopes the matter “can be resolved in a manner that is satisfactory to the entirety of our community.”

“We are saddened that a faculty member has sued students for their good faith service as volunteers on a student-led board,” Hall said in the statement.

Records requests prompt tension

The North Wind staff has been at odds with the administration since October 2014 when reporters launched investigations on the university’s contracts with Starbucks and Lenovo. According to the complaint, a university administrator told Editor-in-Chief Emma Finkbeiner in November The North Wind’s investigative stories could hurt her career prospects and could jeopardize the newspaper’s funding.

In December, Finkbeiner submitted a public records request for the emails of six administrators and the institution’s attorney following “feelings of intimidation” to avoid articles critical of the university — a request met with a $613 pricetag, but eventually reduced to $300. When the newspaper’s board of directors decided in January it would not fork out the money for the requests, the Society of Professional Journalists and local journalists donated money to pay for the fee. Then, the university waived all fees to access the documents following media criticism.

Williams helped research multiple investigative stories, including an article detailing the university’s sexual assault statistics. Williams also wrote an editorial critical of university president’s Fritz Erickson stance on Michigan’s open records law.

In March, a North Wind reporter wrote about Board of Trustees members’ travel expenses, which Williams also helped research. In response, the trustees’ chairman sent a campus-wide email disparaging the paper for the story.

“Throughout the year, we’ve established a narrative where, time after time after time, where we’ve had incidents where the students were trying to write stories and they were being questioned about why they were writing stories or why they were requesting public documents,” Reed said. “It was a continual intimidation and it had a chilling effect on my students.”

On April 9, The North Wind reported that Neiheisel might have influenced the student board members’ vote against Reed’s reappointment. According to The North Wind, Neiheisel met with student board members in January and allegedly said the newspaper’s open records requests were “a waste of time and money” and spoke critically of Reed.

Response to controversy

On Tuesday, the four student board members named in the lawsuit released a statement refuting The North Wind’s claims that Neiheisel used individual meetings with student board members in January to influence their votes, saying a student board member and the student newspaper “mischaracterized” the meetings. In the meetings, Neiheisel only showed the student board members the bylaws and went over the role of the board, according to the statement.

On Thursday, the Society of Professional Journalists said in a news release they had contributed $5,000 to assist with legal fees, adding that boards that oversee student media “cannot pick and choose news coverage.”

The SPJ released a statement on April 7 stating that the board violated Reed’s and Williams’ First Amendment rights when “it made clear it disagreed with the editorial direction of The North Wind.” The Associated Collegiate Press and the College Media Association released similar statements on April 9 and April 10, respectively. All three organizations called for Reed’s reinstatement and Williams’ reconsideration.

Student Press Law Center Executive Director Frank LoMonte said that firing a newspaper adviser based on the viewpoints expressed by students is “the most cowardly form of censorship imaginable.”

“What the administration of Northern Michigan has done in removing Cheryl Reed to punish her students for gathering and using public records is unmistakably a ‘warning shot’ aimed at intimidating the newspaper’s staff,” LoMonte said. “It’s like shooting the hostages. Northern Michigan has set out to create a climate of fear in which student journalists believe they can’t safely question authority figures without punishment.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Mariana Viera by email or at (202) 478-1926.