Northern Michigan University’s The North Wind gives up lawsuit against newspaper’s Board of Directors

MICHIGAN — A week after a judge denied their request for a preliminary injunction that would have kept ousted student newspaper adviser Cheryl Reed in her position, Reed and the managing editor of The North Wind, Michael Williams, have voluntarily given up their lawsuit and are moving forward with the creation of two new campaigns for student press freedom.

The suit, filed in mid-April, alleged that the newspaper’s Board of Directors violated Reed’s First Amendment rights by terminating her. The suit also claimed that Reed’s termination was part of a “campaign of intimidation” dedicated to chilling student investigative journalism efforts.

The judge’s ruling against the injunction was deeply discouraging, Williams said.

“We only wanted one thing,” he said. “The judge didn’t rule that. The judge kind of laughed at that in court.”

Williams said it is “shameful” for NMU to withhold what he called the “best adviser in the community” from the student newspaper.

Williams and Reed dropped the lawsuit when it became clear that the outcome they sought — Reed’s reinstatement — was now nearly impossible without the injunction.

“There’s really no point in going forward if we’re not getting Cheryl as adviser,” he said.

Reed and Williams were also afraid of enabling the creation of a destructive precedent that would hurt other media, as well as The North Wind, said Reed.

Reed said that the lawsuit would have gone before the same judge if she and Williams pursued the case — the judge who denied the preliminary injunction because he felt they were not substantially likely to prevail.

Now, Williams and Reed are involved in two new campaigns to help The North Wind.

The North Wind has started a FOIA fund on GoFundMe with a stated goal of $1,000 to provide money for FOIA requests for the newspaper, as needed. So far, they have raised just over $200 in less than 24 hours.

In December, the newspaper had requested emails of six administrators and the institution’s attorney and received an estimated price tag of $613, which was eventually reduced to $300.

The newspaper’s board of directors decided in January that it would not provide the money for the fees, which were waived following media criticism.

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, is also leading the New Voices of Michigan campaign, which aims to enact legislation in Michigan expanding student journalists’ rights. The legislation is based on the newly-enacted New Voices Act of North Dakota, which protects student journalists and their advisers against retaliation from their educational institutions.

“I think if a jurist is not going to uphold student press freedom, then it probably has to come through legislatively,” said Williams.

In denying the preliminary injunction, the judge stated that the board had editorial control over the newspaper because he was “not convinced” board members were state actors.

However, amendments to the newspaper’s bylaws enacted last semester by the board, with Reed’s input, would remove the tone and content of the paper from the purview of the board, Williams said. The amended bylaws would also protect advisers from retaliatory actions related to what students published.

The bylaws were approved by the board. To be formally enacted, Steve Neiheisel, vice president of enrollment management and student services, Fritz Erickson, university president, and the student governing board must approve the bylaws, Reed said.

Williams said he would be “very surprised” if Neiheisel and Erickson approve the amendments, due to the judge’s affirmative ruling in their favor.

Reed said even though the lawsuit did not go the way she and Williams had hoped, they still managed to expose what was going on at NMU and educate the community about student press freedoms.

“I think it’s been a hard few months, but you know, if you’re a journalist you have to have thick skin. I think Michael and I have a few scabs… but we’re trying to move forward in a positive direction,” she said.

Contact staff writer Trisha LeBoeuf by email or at 202-974-6318.

Correction (07/22/15): A previous version of this article misspelled Michael Williams’ last name on first reference. The article has been updated to correct this.