SPLC helps reverse suspension of college student editor at Western Illinois University

Western Illinois University (2015)

Macomb, Ill.

A student was removed from his position as editor of his university’s paper after selling a video he captured of police pepper-spraying students during an on-campus brawl.

“The Student Press Law Center was there when I needed help and guidance. I really had no where else to go, and no one else to seek help from. But with one phone call, the wheels were in motion to get legal assistance, and within just a few days, we were ready to fight for my position as the Western Courier editor-in-chief. I was able to take a stand against the Western Illinois University administration that unjustly and without much thought suspended me from my position. With the help of the SPLC, I was reinstated without incident within a few weeks without giving any ground. Without their help, I doubt I would have been able to defend myself, and it most certainly would not have gone as smooth as it did.”

— Nicholas Stewart, then-editor-in-chief of the Western Courier

The trigger

The editor of Western Illinois University’s Western Courier, Nicholas Stewart, recorded footage of campus police pepper-spraying a crowd of students involved in a fight. He then sold the footage to a news organization and also published it on his paper’s website.

The school’s reaction

The university sent Stewart a letter that suspended him from his position, citing a breach to the Student Code of Conduct. In the letter, the university also required a judicial hearing to “see if there were any professional, ethical or legal violations.” They also demanded to be compensated for any profits he made off the video, since they claimed Stewart was working as a university employee in his paid position as editor (although the video was shot during a class hiatus when Stewart received no pay).

Fighting back

Several groups came to Stewart’s defense, including the Illinois Broadcasters Association, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Student Press Law Center. SPJ President Dana Neuts sent a letter to the president of the university arguing that Stewart was freelancing during the incident so the university did not have claim to his work. Stewart also used the SPLC’s volunteer attorney network to find Chicago attorney Gabriel Fuentes, who traveled to Macomb to meet with the newspaper’s publications board and the university’s auditor.

End result

The university ultimately lifted Stewart’s suspension two weeks later, “given the lack of guidance available regarding Western Courier policies and procedures.” The university also revisited their freelancing policy which they determined to be too vague.

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