Student journalists at Iowa community college allege harassment, intimidation in First Amendment lawsuit against administrators

IOWA — Twelve current and former members of the student newspaper at a community college in Iowa have filed suit against several of the institution’s top administrators, arguing the officials allowed faculty and staff members to harass and intimidate student journalists following a series of critical news stories.

Administrators at Muscatine Community College also took actions to remove The Calumet’s full-time faculty adviser and replace him with a part-time adjunct instructor, modify the fall 2015 class schedule “to marginalize the journalism program” and reduce funding to the program, according to a complaint filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa. The complaint argues the decisions were “content-based” and therefore violated the student journalists’ First Amendment rights.

“As the quality of the newspaper improved, it also led to reporting that touched on issues that didn’t always make people comfortable,” said attorney Bryan Clark of the law firm Vedder Price, who represents the student journalists pro-bono. Clark said the changes to the newspaper were made “to create a restraint on free speech and to essentially let the newspaper — without getting rid of it — allow it to die on the vine.”

Among the defendants in the lawsuit are Muscatine Community College’s president, the human resources director and equal employment opportunity officer for Eastern Iowa Community Colleges and the Board of Trustees of Eastern Iowa Community Colleges.

Although she said she has not yet had an opportunity to review the complaint in detail, Mikkie Schiltz, the college’s attorney, said college officials have guaranteed and protected the Constitutional rights of their students, faculty and staff, “including the First Amendment rights regarding freedom of speech and of the press.”

“We disagree with many, if not all, of the contentions in the lawsuit and we plan to defend all of their actions,” she said.

Mary Mason, a nontraditional student and The Calumet’s editor in chief, sees the situation differently. Student journalists at Muscatine Community College, she said, are frequently shut down.

“It’s something that needs to be remedied because it’s not a conducive environment for questioning or following a thread to see where it’s going to end up,” she said. “A lot of the students, whenever they start to follow the thread, they get told ‘no, leave it alone. Don’t ask these questions.’”

Stories prompt tension

In October 2013, plaintiff Spencer Ludman wrote an article for The Calumet about perceived conflicts of interest after the Student Senate president was named “Student of the Month” for the second time in a contest where her uncle served as a judge. In response, LaDrina Wilson, then-MCC equal employment opportunity and affirmative action officer, began to question student journalists about the article.

Student Senate faculty adviser John Dabeet had filed an EEO complaint against Jim Compton, the student newspaper’s adviser, alleging the story was retaliatory.

After the college hired James Sweeney, a third-party private investigator, the college’s dean of students “attempted to coerce” several student journalists to participate in interviews with Sweeney without counsel, according to the complaint.

“The EEO proceeding, the related calls and the pressure to be interviewed by Sweeney were a direct result of the content of Ludman’s article,” according to the complaint, “and the student journalists felt pressured and intimidated — a fact they expressed to administrators at the time.”

The investigation ultimately determined an EEO violation did not exist. Wilson has since been promoted to dean of students at Scott Community College, which is part of the Eastern Iowa Community Colleges system, and Dabeet is now co-chair of the college system’s diversity council.

Prof’s photo escalates tension

Tension between college administrators and the student newspaper staff returned in December 2014 after The Calumet ran a story about several grants the college received, including a $38,000 grant to Rick Boyer, who currently is the math and science department chairman and will be the college’s interim dean for the 2015-16 school year.

When a student reporter sent emails to Boyer with questions about the grant, Boyer did not respond — which the newspaper noted in it’s coverage. The story also included Boyer’s photo among images of other grant recipients.

Shortly after the story was printed, Boyer called the student newspaper’s newsroom to complain about the photograph, arguing the newspaper didn’t have permission to print the headshot and that it must obtain his permission in the future before printing “his photograph or a photograph of anyone else on campus,” according to the complaint.

“I said ‘because you are a faculty member, I do not need your permission,’ and his answer to me was ‘you do now,’” Mason, who answered the phone, said. “I said ‘that’s not how it works,’ and he hung up.”

In January, Compton asked Deb Sullivan, the human resources director and equal employment opportunity officer for the college system, to facilitate a discussion with Boyer to address his concerns with the student newspaper. In her response, she said she had completed a review of the situation and recommended the student journalists “move on to a different article.” But in her review, the complaint says, Sullivan never contacted any of the student journalists involved in the dispute.

“Once again, the administration had sided with a faculty member who sought to intimidate and harass student journalists,” according to the complaint, “and suggested that censorship of the student voice would be the best way to resolve the issue.”

On Feb. 6, The Calumet published a story about Boyer’s call to the newsroom. A few days later, Muscatine Community College Dean Gail Spies told Compton that he was being removed as the newspaper’s adviser and would be replaced by a part-time adjunct faculty member.

While college officials say they needed Compton to teach English, the lawsuit alleges the change was “merely a pretext for the administration’s retaliatory behavior.”

Clark said the lawsuit does not insist that Compton must remain the newspaper’s adviser. Instead, it argues the position should remain full-time.

“There is a 60-year track record of having a full-time adviser for the newspaper, and that is not being disregarded in favor of an adjunct professor,” Clark said. Although he doesn’t know Compton’s replacement, who could be “an outstanding professor and capable of doing this job,” Clark said the adjunct professor’s part-time contract “will not allow them to do the job in a way that’s been consistent with the past.”

Contact SPLC staff writer Mark Keierleber by email or at (202) 833-4614.