SPJ says student newspaper board at Northern Michigan U. violated adviser’s First Amendment rights in termination

MICHIGAN — The board of directors of the student newspaper at Northern Michigan University violated the First Amendment rights of the news organization’s editorial adviser when it declined to renew her contract last week, according to a Society of Professional Journalists statement calling for her reinstatement.

The North Wind’s Board of Directors voted on Friday against rehiring Cheryl Reed, The North Wind’s adviser, in a move she said is retaliation after student reporters tackled investigative stories critical of the university’s administration. Additionally, the board voted not to hire the newspaper’s managing editor as the next editor in chief — even though he was the only applicant.

“Boards that oversee student media must avoid any hint of censorship or pre-publication interference,” Dana Neuts, SPJ National President, said in a news release on Tuesday. “Colleges and universities that are fortunate enough to have student newspapers should give advisers the freedom to teach students about good, ethical journalism without fear of retribution if something less than positive is published about the institution.”

As her time with the paper runs out, Reed said she has consulted attorneys — including the Student Press Law Center — to determine if she has any grounds to sue the board for violating her First Amendment rights.

“If in the discussions there had been anything like I had been derelict in my duties, the board would certainly have grounds for firing me,” Reed said. “That’s certainly not the case. This is a case where the board didn’t like that I was educating my students on how to FOIA legal issues and defending their right to pursue investigative stories.”

Staff at The North Wind have been at odds with university administrators since October 2014, when reporters began an investigation on the university’s contracts with Starbucks and Lenovo. Reed said two reporters were told the newspaper could lose its funding if it kept writing investigative stories.

In December 2014, Finkbeiner made an open records request for the emails of six administrators. University administrators attempted to charge The North Wind for the documents, but faced with criticism on social media and SPJ support for the newspaper, the administration backed down.

In March, a North Wind reporter wrote about Board of Trustees members’ travel expenses. In response, Rick Popp, the Board of Trustees chairman, sent a campus-wide email disparaging the paper for the story, which he said was not inaccurate.

“I believe in my students’ First Amendment rights, and I’m not going to be inserting myself and stopping them from reporting on important stories or advising them not to seek public documents,” Reed said.

According to the agenda, the board — which includes five students, a faculty member, an administrator, a local journalist and Reed — was scheduled to go into an executive session on Friday to interview Managing Editor Michael Williams to be editor in chief next semester. The board was also scheduled to discuss “2015-2016 appointments” during the executive session, but Reed said she didn’t know that would include her reappointment.

Reed, who also works as an English professor at the institution, was hired as the newspaper’s adviser in 2014 on a contract that the board must choose whether to renew annually. The board voted 5-3 against rehiring Reed, with Reed abstaining from the vote to avoid a conflict of interest.

Emma Finkbeiner, The North Wind’s editor in chief, said she felt the agenda was “purposefully vague” so “there would be nothing we could do” to defend Reed when members of the newspaper’s staff returned to the meeting.

The board also voted 5-4 against hiring Williams as the newspaper’s next top editor.

Finkbeiner said Williams had written and helped report several of the paper’s investigative stories over the last year, including an article about sexual assault on college campuses that was published during the university’s parents’ weekend in June.

Instead of hiring Williams, Finkbeiner said the board was more interested in hiring an editor who would “recycle press releases and play nice with the university.”

Reed said the board may have violated its own bylaws when it discussed her reappointment without opinion from members of the editorial staff. According to the rules, both the Board of Directors and the editorial staff must to vote to hire an adviser.

“This is a board that’s supposed to be supporting a newspaper in which it never even consults the editors in charge about what their desires are or what would be most beneficial for them,” Reed said. “They’re not trying to help the newspaper. They’re not trying to support the opinions of the staff. They’re working in direct opposition to them.”

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