Award recognizes Fairmont State college journalists for fighting censorship, retaliation

November 1, 2015   
Contact: Frank LoMonte, Executive Director or 202-872-1704

Fairmont State journalists saluted for courage in confronting censorship with College Press Freedom Award

Editor Jacob Buckland and the staffof The Columns at West Virginia’sFairmont State University are the winners of the 2015 College Press FreedomAward for standing up against institutional censorship and retaliation –including the removal of their faculty adviser – after their reporting broughtto light health problems associated with mold in campus residence halls.

The award was announced at theNational College Media Convention in Austin, attended by some 1,800 collegejournalism students and advisers.

“The work of Jacob Buckland and hisstaff at The Columns is exactly thetype of exemplary public-service journalism for which student journalistsshould be thanked and rewarded. They helped focus attention on a problem ofpressing public concern in the best tradition of investigative reporting,” saidattorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.“Their determination to continuing bringing the public essential news – evenafter their newspaper program was decimated by Fairmont State’s retaliation –is richly deserving of the College Press Freedom Award.”

Louisiana State University’s ManshipSchool of Mass Communication sponsors the award in honor of “The Reveille Seven,” a group of determinedstudent newspaper editors who stood up against Louisiana’s political powerstructure in publishing a column critical of then-U.S. Sen. Huey Long,resulting in their expulsion from LSU, an action for which the college hassince apologized. The award is co-sponsored by the Associated Collegiate Press,one of the organizers of the national media convention.

During April and May of 2015, The Columns carried a series offront-page stories about potentially unhealthy levels of toxic mold in campusdormitories. Reporters for the newspaper obtained a commercial testing kit and,with verification from outside experts, detected the presence of toxic “blackmold” in at least one residence hall. Their findings validated the experienceof a student athlete, Breanna Blot, who told the newspaper that her doctoradvised moving out of campus housing after she experienced a debilitatingrespiratory illness linked to mold exposure.

In a front-page column accompanyingthe latter story, the editors of TheColumns described the hostile environment on campus for studentjournalists, which included pressure from their department chair to pre-approvenews stories and repeated refusals even to provide editors with a copy of theirown newspaper’s budget.

Shortly thereafter, faculty adviserMichael Kelley, an experienced professional journalist who had been hired in2014-15 under the understanding of a three-year term appointment, was told bythe provost without explanation that his contract would not be renewed. The twoadvisers immediately preceding Kelley – including a former national presidentof the Society of Professional Journalists, Kevin Smith – both say they, likeKelley, faced continuing pressure to curb students’ investigative reporting andpublish only articles flattering to the university.

This fall, the three returningeditors of The Columns – Buckland, TylerWilson and Britany Mullins – met with Fairmont State President Maria Rose andProvost Christina Lavorata, who said they were unlikely to be rehired aseditors because the newspaper’s tone was unacceptably controversial andnegative. The three then decided to leave the paper rather than work under aregime of censorship and are launching an independent online news outlet, The Broken Column, as an alternative.

“I am honored to receive thisaward on the behalf of the staff at TheColumns,” Buckland said. “It is important as students and journalists tostand up for the rights guaranteed to us by the Constitution. The universityneeds to be held accountable for infringing on those rights and the studentsdeserve to know the truth. I look forward to continuing real, investigativejournalism as part of The Broken Column.”

LoMonte said the award stands as astatement on behalf of the entire college media community that the hostilitytoward journalism at Fairmont State must end: “This award is a wake-up call tothe trustees of Fairmont State that something is deeply wrong in the culture oftheir institution beginning at the highest rungs of leadership. When studentsand employees can’t safely speak out about matters of public health and safetywithout punishment, the campus becomes a place of fear, secrecy and distrustwhere corruption thrives.”

Since 1974, the Student Press LawCenter has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists aboutthe rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supportingthe student news media in covering important issues free from censorship. Anarchive of previous winners of the SPLC’s college and high-school journalismawards is online at: