From egregious censorship to free-speech legislation, revisiting the top 10 biggest news stories of 2015

As 2015 draws to a close, it’s time to look back on biggest news stories regarding free speech and student press rights. This year was a roller coaster — multiple advisers lost their jobs and several college newspapers faced aggressive administrative censorship and intimidation, but there were also legal victories in opening up records for private universities’ police forces and the start of a grassroots movement to grant student journalists extra protections in state law.

Here’s a recap, and to keep up with the news in 2016, subscribe to SPLC’s email newsletter.

1. Protecting student journalists, state by state

In April, North Dakota passed the John Wall New Voices Act, which ensures the free-speech rights of student journalists in public schools and colleges. That made North Dakota the eighth state to pass legislation reinforcing students’ right to free speech and sparked a nationwide movement to pass similar legislation across the country. There are 19 state campaigns so far, and about a half dozen have concrete plans to introduce legislation in 2016. New Jersey was the first state with North Dakota-inspired legislation filed that will grant students an extra degree of protection from administrative censorship and also explicitly protect student publication advisers from retaliation.

2. Student journalists denied access to covering campus protests

In November, two student photojournalists were barred from attempting to photograph a campus protest at the University of Missouri by students and faculty members. One of the photojournalists, Mark Schierbecker, captured the entire exchange on video, which instantly went viral and sparked a nationwide debate about free press versus safe spaces for protesters. As college students across the country began to protest racism on campus, many adopted a no-media stance. Still, as the Student Press Law Center wrote in a new guide to documenting protests and demonstrations, there is no “right not to be photographed” in a public space. Meanwhile, the faculty members who blocked the photojournalists from taking photos — particularly communications professor Melissa Click, who called for “muscle” to remove Schierbecker — faced intense public criticism and condemnation, with Title IX complaints filed against them.

3. Shining a light on private universities’ police records

In most states, private universities’ police departments can shield records from the public, despite having the power to make arrests and use force. In May, however, the Texas legislature unanimously passed a law that requires private university police forces to release certain records to the public. The Ohio Supreme Court also ruled in favor of a former student journalist, determining that police departments at private universities are public entities and must release records to the public. A similar legal challenge in Indiana is pending before the state Court of Appeals — ESPN had sued to open the University of Notre Dame’s police records. The district court ruled in favor of the university, but in August, the state attorney general filed a brief with the appeals court in support of ESPN.

4. A school’s journalism program eliminated

In April, the journalism program at Delta State University in Mississippi was eliminated in a unanimous vote following a discussion that lasted less than 10 minutes. The university also cut the funding for the student newspaper’s print production and rejected overtures from private donors to make up the funding and keep the Delta Statement in print. The cuts were part of a $1 million university-wide budget cut, but Patricia Roberts, the student newspaper’s adviser and sole journalism professor who lost her job in the cuts, argued that the move was retaliatory. The university president had announced the elimination of the journalism program immediately following a student reporter’s phone call seeking comment about an embarrassing lawsuit against the president. Roberts died in December following a battle with ovarian cancer. She had appealed her termination to the Mississippi Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees, but the board never acted on the appeal.

5. Embattled high school journalists keep fighting censorship


Few high school journalists faced as much intimidation this year as the students at San Gabriel High School. In May, the student journalists of the Matador tried to write an article about the dismissal of a popular first-year teacher. The then-principal told the students they could only write a positive feature about the teacher, without mentioning the dismissal. The students published the pre-approved feature along with an editorial alerting readers that the coverage had been censored — and then fought the censorship at school board meetings throughout the summer.

A school district investigation found that there was no intentional censorship, though critics have called the investigation inadequate. The district announced plans in June to implement several safeguards for the student press. In August, however, the student media adviser who oversaw the Matador was placed on administrative leave indefinitely following a dispute with the school’s new principal at a summer yearbook camp. (The adviser, Jennifer Kim, was finally allowed to resume teaching at the end of the fall term after receiving a written reprimand.) In October, school officials abruptly shut down the Matador’s website with no advance warning, causing the paper to lose its archives. In November, the student journalists were presented with the 2015 Courage in Student Journalism Award by the Student Press Law Center and the National Scholastic Press Association.

6. Censored student journalists raise thousands in crowdfunding campaign

Over the summer, the student journalism community and its supporters rallied around student journalists from Muscatine Community College in Iowa. The student journalists faced intense harassment and intimidation from administrators, who were angry about several stories published in the school newspaper, the Calumet — like an expose of a conflict of interest on the student-of-the-month contest committee or a story about broken door handles around campus.

In May, 12 current and former Calumet staffers filed a federal lawsuit alleging that in retaliation for those articles, administrators removed the paper’s faculty adviser, Jim Compton, and replaced him with a part-time adjunct, modified the fall 2015 schedule to marginalized the journalism program and reduced funding for the program. The staffers launched their own independent newspaper, The Spotlight, in July, after raising more than $5,000 in a crowdfunding campaign. They were also the first recipients of the J-Team’s training, which is a boot-camp project for censored college journalists led by the Student Press Law Center, Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters & Editors. In September, however, a federal judge denied the students’ request for an injunction in their lawsuit in a 33-page ruling that tore holes through the students’ case. In October, the student journalists dropped their lawsuit against the college.

7. Adviser’s removal leads to lawsuit

In another failed First Amendment lawsuit, the managing editor and an ousted student newspaper adviser tried to sue the North Wind student newspaper’s board of directors in April. The board had terminated adviser Cheryl Reed in what the lawsuit called a “campaign of intimidation motivated to punish and chill student journalists’ investigative news reporting about the university.” The board had also refused to pay for student journalists’ FOIA fees and voted not to hire managing editor Michael Williams as editor-in-chief, even though he was the only applicant for the job. A federal district court judge, however, denied Reed’s request for an injunction that would have allowed her to remain as adviser during the lawsuit. Reed and Williams dropped the suit a week later and instead turned their support to New Voices of Michigan, which aims to create legislation that protects both student journalists and their advisers from retaliation.

8. Debate over students’ off-campus, online speech reaches Supreme Court

Courts continued to debate the extent of schools’ punitive reach when it comes to students’ online, off-campus speech in 2015, with one student receiving $425,000 in a federal settlement after being suspended for a two-word sarcastic tweet that was posted at home.

In August, the en banc U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in favor of the Mississippi school district that had punished a former high school student for posting online a profanity-filled rap about two school coaches. The former student, Taylor Bell, had rapped about sexual harassment complaints from female students and was suspended from school. His attorneys have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review Bell’s case, arguing that students’ off-campus speech deserve greater protection than the standards set in the 1969 Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, which was specifically regarding on-campus speech. In December, the Student Press Law Center filed a brief urging the Supreme Court to hear the case.

9. Student journalists’ discovery of toxic mold showcases toxic culture at Fairmont State

Student journalists at Fairmont State University in West Virginia won the 2015 College Press Freedom Award for standing up against institutional censorship and retaliation, including the removal of their faculty adviser, after their reporting for The Columns exposed toxic black mold in campus housing. The adviser, Michael Kelley, filed a grievance in June against the university in response to his dismissal, which is still pending. The student journalists also claimed that one administrator in particular, Robert Baker, threatened and intimidated the students after they published the articles on the mold. Baker was removed from his supervisory position for the Columns in July. In September, the three editors of The Columns resigned in protest after administrators told them they would probably not be retained in an effort to move the newspaper’s coverage toward a “more positive direction.” The editors launched an independent watchdog news site, called “The Broken Column.” (Read the SPLC’s Report magazine story on the “culture of intimidation” at Fairmont State.)

10. Diversity efforts were at odds with free press values at Wesleyan

Perhaps the college journalism news story that got the most attention in 2015 was centered around the Wesleyan University’s Argus newspaper. In September, a columnist criticized the Black Lives Matter movement, which set off a firestorm on campus — about 500 copies of the newspaper were trashed in protest and students launched a petition to defund the Argus unless the paper met demands for more diversity efforts. The student government unanimously passed a resolution proposing to cut $17,000 from the Argus’ printing budget of about $30,000. That money will be used to create 20 paid positions at various student publications in an effort to add more diversity to the staff. The cut hasn’t been implemented yet, as a working group of student leaders will first examine the best ways to carry it out.

The campus debate, which quickly garnered national attention, sparked a larger conversation about the lack of diversity in student media and how that can negatively affect college journalism’s reporting on race.

Want more stories like this? The Student Press Law Center is a legal and educational nonprofit defending the rights of student journalists. Sign up for our free weekly newsletter to receive a notification on Fridays about the week’s new articles.

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