Censored college journalists in Iowa get SPLC’s help to sue college and launch an independent newspaper

Muscatine Community College (2015)

Muscatine, Iowa

Student journalists at Muscatine Community College in Iowa filed a federal lawsuit against the college and launched an independent newspaper after facing intimidation and harassment from school administrators and faculty.

“I wasn’t on the paper long before the Calumet started receiving pushback from administrators and faculty members. The administration did not like the way our stories made the college look. The funny thing is all the stories were true. We went from a respected newspaper to a newspaper that no one wanted to speak to. The SPLC helped file a lawsuit against our college for censorship. When the lawsuit was filed, it became immediately clear that the administration cared more about the college’s reputation, rather than student rights. They even went as far as removing our professor from being the adviser of the Calumet in an attempt to stop stories that were not what they wanted. When the SPLC stepped in, I became relieved to see that there was an organization willing to stand up for the truth. Since this whole experience, I have become a strong advocate for freedom of speech. The lawsuit and being a target of the administration made me realize the reality of the world that we live in. Other student journalists and I created our own independent newspaper called the Spotlight so we could write investigative news pieces that are controversial. Without the SPLC, the Spotlight would have never gotten off the ground. The SPLC has helped cultivate my love for the universal right of free speech. If I had never gone through what happened with the Calumet and the Spotlight, I would not be the person who I am today.”

— Tarsa Weikert, former news editor for the Calumet and the Spotlight

The trigger

Student journalists at Muscatine’s student newspaper, The Calumet, published a series of contentious news articles, including an article about a perceived conflict of interest in the school’s “Student of the Month” contest — the Student Senate president won the contest twice, despite her uncle serving as a judge.

Later, students ran an article on a grant awarded to a faculty member and included his picture in the paper. After the story was printed, the faculty member called the newsroom to complain that the photo was published without his permission and that in the future, student journalists must obtain his permission before printing “his photograph or a photograph of anyone else on campus.”

When the Calumet staff then sought to write an article about the threat, the college’s human resources director told the editors to “move on to a different article.” But in response, the student journalists published a story about the faculty member’s call to the newsroom and included the offending photo four times in the article.

The school’s reaction

Days after the article appeared in the paper, Muscatine Community College Dean Gail Spies informed Jim Compton, the newspaper’s adviser, that he would be replaced by a part-time adjunct faculty member. Compton was moved to the English department.

Fighting back

Members of The Calumet filed a lawsuit against school administrators in May 2015, alleging school officials allowed staff and faculty to intimidate and harass student journalists. The lawsuit also argued administrators reduced funding to the journalism program, changed the fall 2015 schedule and downsized the student adviser position from full-time to part-time in an effort to “marginalize the journalism program.”

Members of the newspaper then went on to launch their own independent newspaper, The Spotlight, paying for publishing costs through a GoFundMe account that raised more than $5,000 from supporters across the country.

End result

The Spotlight printed their first edition, a 16-page broadsheet, on July 10, 2015. The newspaper also published content on an independent website, spotlightnewspaper.org.

Then in August, the Student Press Law Center, the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters & Editors partnered to create “The J-Team,” which provides intensive training for college journalists “facing unusual levels of censorship in covering their campuses.” For their first trip, the team stopped by the nearby University of Iowa for a day-long workshop aimed at helping Muscatine students continue to tell tough stories on their campus.

A month after a federal district court rejected the students’ request for a preliminary injunction in September, the student journalists — many of whom had already left the school — voluntarily dropped the case against Muscatine.

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