Court will not grant an injunction to Iowa student journalists suing administrators for retaliation

IOWA — A federal district court has ruled against Muscatine Community College student journalists’ request for a primary injunction in their lawsuit against some of the school’s top administrators for harassment and intimidation.

The current and former students, some of whom raised more than $5,000 to start their own independent publication (“The Spotlight”) to escape the college’s control, had asked the court for a preliminary injunction to keep the administration from implementing changes that they claimed marginalized and censored the student newspaper, The Calumet.

The students had filed suit against several top MCC administrators in May, arguing that administrators allowed faculty and staff members to harass and intimidate student journalists for their publication of unwanted news stories. Administrators also removed the Calumet’s full-time faculty adviser and replaced him with a part-time adjunct instructor, modified the fall 2015 class schedule “to marginalize the journalism program” and reduced funding to the program, the students charged, saying these actions violated their First Amendment rights.

In a 33-page ruling released Wednesday, Chief Judge James E. Gritzner of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Iowa wrote that the students did not establish any of the four factors necessary to receive an injunction: a likelihood of success on the case’s merits, irreparable harm to the plaintiffs, that the balance of harms of granting or denying the injunction weighs in the students’ favor and that the injunction is in the public’s interest.

Thus, Gritzner denied the request for a primary injunction. He also found the claims of nine of the 12 former MCC students — including the Calumet’s former editor-in-chief — to be moot and dismissed them as plaintiffs.

The student journalists’ attorney Bryan Clark, who is representing them pro-bono, did not respond to requests for comment late Wednesday.

In the ruling, Gritzner wrote that the students have not demonstrated a likelihood of success in showing that administrators’ comments about some of the articles — including a story about a grant that the then-math and science department chairman Rick Boyer won — had a chilling effect on the journalists.

Boyer had objected to the photograph of him that the Calumet ran alongside images of other grant recipients and said the newspaper must obtain his permission in the future before running his photograph or “a photograph of anyone else on campus.” The Calumet wrote an article about Boyer’s objection with the offending photograph printed four times.

“Seemingly in recognition of the fact there was no chilling effect, Plaintiffs argue that they are more tenacious that average student journalists and that Boyer’s call and the administration’s response would have chilled persons of ordinary firmness in their position. The Court does not discount Plaintiffs’ tenacity, but nor does the Court modify the standard,” Gritzner wrote. “The Court finds it unlikely that Plaintiffs will demonstrate that even student journalists of ordinary firmness in Plaintiffs’ position would have been chilled by a negative reaction and vocal complaint from a faculty member with no control over their paper.”

Gritzner also said that while he doubts “that an adjunct would be able to dedicate the same level of commitment to a course of extracurricular activity as a full-time professor,” he found it unlikely that the student journalists would be able to show that the administrators’ removal of Jim Compton as the paper’s full-time adviser was a retaliatory action or an attempt to restrain the paper’s speech.

The MCC administrators have said they needed Compton to return to teaching English, which he had done in the past. The students’ attorney, Clark, said in a previous interview with the SPLC that the lawsuit was not insisting that Compton remain the paper’s adviser, but rather the position remain full-time.

Gritzner wrote that the evidence showed MCC administrators would have changed the position of the adviser to be part-time for a legitimate reason other than retaliation. Administrators have said that the decision to hire an adjunct stemmed from budget constraints and that the adjunct tapped to advise the Calumet has “significant journalism experience.”

Gritzner also said that there was no evidence that the change in time of the school’s Beginning News Writing course was an effort to retaliate against the Calumet (partly since the course is not a requirement to join the paper). He concluded that the students didn’t demonstrate a likelihood of success that the administrators’ cut the paper’s funding, which is controlled by the Student Senate — or that they proved the funding was cut at all. 

The Student Senate did not fund the student newspaper for the 2014-15 school year, and the former MCC president Bob Allbee allocated $6,800 to the paper from another source. That is more than the Student Senate granted the Calumet in any year between 2008 and 2015, the ruling said. (The Calumet has been requesting about $15,000 for the past couple years).

Gritzner also ruled that granting a preliminary injunction could harm the MCC administration if the college were prevented from hiring an adjunct.

“Although replacing a full-time faculty member with an adjunct might impact students and The Calumet, it is not the Court’s role to direct how Defendants allocate their scarce resources,” he said.

The Student Press Law Center, which has assisted the student journalists with their case, recently led a workshop with the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters & Editors to help the students who started the independent newspaper The Spotlight with tips on further investigating their college.

Contact SPLC staff writer Madeline Will at 202-833-4614 or by email.