Muscatine Community College student journalists drop lawsuit against school

IOWA — About a month after a federal district court denied Muscatine Community College student journalists a preliminary injunction in their lawsuit against administrators, the journalists — many of whom have since left the school — have voluntarily dropped the case.

The students had sued several administrators in May, alleging that the leaders allowed faculty and staff members to intimidate student journalists who published controversial stories. They argued that administrators removed the full-time adviser of The Calumet, the MCC newspaper, and replaced him with a part-time instructor, modified the fall 2015 class schedule in order to “marginalize the journalism program” and cut the program’s funding — therefore violating the students’ First Amendment rights. In response to the administration’s actions, students raised money to establish an independent publication, The Spotlight.

But U.S. district court judge James E. Gritzner denied the injunction on Sept. 30 in a 33-page ruling, on the grounds that the case didn’t qualify for entry of a preliminary injunction.

The judge ruled that the MCC students failed to satisfy the required four-factor test proving a likelihood of success on the case’s merits, irreparable harm to the plaintiffs, that the balance of harms in granting or denying the injunction weighs in the students’ favor, and that the injunction is in the public’s interest. The judge found that the actions of administrators did not impose a chilling effect on the newspaper and that the students could not prove any intimidation or retaliatory measures from administrators.

Gritzner 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.

“Obviously, we had hoped to take the case further, but, you know, it’s not necessarily surprising that at a community college where folks are only there for a short time that we didn’t necessarily get to take it all the way through the legal system,” said Bryan Clark, an SPLC volunteer attorney with Vedder Price P.C. representing the students, who filed the notice of dismissal on Oct. 21. “I think the suit definitely gave the students an opportunity to stand up for their First Amendment rights while they were there and shine a light on what’s been going on. Hopefully it’s been a learning experience.”

Student editors and former adviser Jim Compton did not respond to requests for comment as of Monday afternoon.

What the students deemed retaliation and intimidation followed a series of critical news stories and tiffs with faculty. For example, the paper printed a photograph of a professor who won a grant without asking the professor’s permission. The professor insisted that the newspaper must obtain his permission in the future before printing his photograph or the photograph of anyone else on campus. The Calumet then published a story about the professor’s objection, along with four images of the offending photograph.

This isn’t the first time that defiant student journalists have been stopped in their tracks in the litigation process. In a similar case in Michigan this summer, Northern Michigan University student editors at the North Wind newspaper dropped a lawsuit against the paper’s board of directors after the judge denied an injunction to keep the paper’s ousted adviser in her position. That lawsuit had claimed that the board of directors fired the paper’s adviser to chill student investigative journalism efforts.

The Calumet editors recently won Iowa Watch’s Stephen Berry Free Press Champion Award for their courage in fighting censorship. They also participated in a “J-Team” workshop in August, led by the Student Press Law Center, the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters & Editors, an alliance of journalism organizations formed to support college journalists who face extraordinary adversity in covering their campuses.

Contact SPLC staff writer Tara Jeffries at 202-974-6317 or by email.