NEW JERSEY — Student journalists at the County College of Morris recently went before the school’s Board of Trustees with more than two years of documented incidents with school administrators — saying administrators intimidated the student newspaper staff from doing their jobs and eventually ousted their adviser.
The Youngtown Edition’s Editor-in-Chief Alexa Wyszkowski, Managing Editor Adam Gentile and News Editor Anthony Ingham told the board during its Nov. 19 meeting that administrators removed their previous adviser, Russ Crespolini, without explanation and later hired a short-lived, inexperienced replacement.
Wyszkowski also described being pushed to make an agreement with an administrator requiring the Youngtown to more than triple its advertising sales, which she said is nearly impossible. If the goal was not met, the paper’s print edition would end.
“For the past two years, we have experienced an escalating campaign of intimidation, harassment, threats to our resources, and been fed a steady diet of misrepresentations, half-truths and outright lies,” Wyszkowski told the board.*
Crespolini, Wyszkowski and Gentile told the Student Press Law Center in interviews that administrators have threatened to pull the paper’s funding, told a previous editor-in-chief that he should step down and cut the Youngtown’s print circulation in half without notifying students.
They also said CCM President Anthony Iacono and Vice President of Student Development and Enrollment Management Bette Simmons frequently requested meetings with students and Crespolini over the paper’s content.
“Those meetings were never ‘I demand you do anything,’ but it was just a constant underlying tone of ‘we’re watching you, and we want certain things from you,’” Crespolini said. “And I did a lot, personally, to insulate the students from those types of meetings. Unfortunately, once I was removed over the summer, they got the full front of it.”
Wyszkowski said the Youngtown addressed the board during the open comment portion of the Nov. 19 meeting to inform board members of these alleged actions by administrators.
CCM is a community college in Randolph, New Jersey, about 40 miles from New York City. During the 2017-18 academic year, just under 8,000 students were enrolled, according to U.S. News and World Report.
It appears CCM has either threatened to do or done pretty much everything the First Amendment prohibits public college officials from doing with respect to student media
Writing for the Youngtown is a requirement for students in the journalism program, according to CCM’s website, but Wyszkowski said only about 10 students consistently work at the paper.
Crespolini had been an instructor at CCM for two years teaching speech classes before he also became the Youngtown’s adviser in the spring of 2015. Crespolini has been a working journalist since the early 2000s.
After Crespolini was removed from CCM during summer 2019, students at the Youngtown contacted SPLC for advice on their First Amendment rights. SPLC Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand said CCM administrators had likely violated their rights as journalists.
“It appears CCM has either threatened to do or done pretty much everything the First Amendment prohibits public college officials from doing with respect to student media,” Hiestand said. “College officials can’t use their power of the purse to control or punish student media. They can’t fire an adviser to get back at student media. They can’t threaten a student editor’s job because of content. Yet there are credible allegations that they’ve checked the box on all of these.”
We have experienced an escalating campaign of intimidation, harassment, threats to our resources, and been fed a steady diet of misrepresentations, half-truths and outright lies
An SPLC reporter requested interviews with Iacono, Simmons and Director of Campus Life Don Phelps, but was referred to CCM Director of Marketing and Public Relations Kathleen Brunet. We then sent a list of claims made by students and Crespolini about these administrators to give them a chance to respond to each allegation. Brunet said Simmons would be away from the college until late December and Iacono and Phelps were not available. Brunet sent this statement instead:
“Many of your questions relate to confidential personnel matters that we cannot comment on. The college has never sought to intimidate a representative of Youngtown as to the subject matter of any stories Youngtown intended to cover. Meetings with the Youngtown staff were offered to provide the Youngtown editorial staff the opportunity to present their concerns. Attendance at these meetings was voluntary. The college will continue to support [t]he Youngtown Edition, which has a long and successful history at CCM, and looks forward to working with the newspaper’s leadership team so the paper can continue its award-winning work.”
The reporter later requested comment from CCM’s Board of Trustees regarding the Youngtown’s comments at the Nov. 19 meeting. Brunet provided the following statement from the board:
“The County College of Morris Board of Trustees supports college administrators in their efforts to work with The Youngtown Edition so it can continue its award-winning coverage of the college and other issues of importance to the CCM community.”
Brett Friedensohn, now graduated, was editor-in-chief of the Youngtown in fall 2017. He and then-Managing-Editor Jannat Sheikh began investigating CCM’s compliance with fire safety code, and discovered a number of expired certificates across campus. One building displayed a tag that had been outdated for nearly a decade.
An administrator went on the record making false or inconsistent statements, which a later story that semester by Friedensohn and Sheikh pointed out. Crespolini said things were never the same for the Youngtown after the initial story ran.
“Immediately, I got an email that Dr. Simmons was summoning me to her office to discuss her deep concerns about the direction of the Youngtown as a paper,” Crespolini said. “Her concerns were that the paper was going in a ‘gotcha journalism’ kind of direction.”
Crespolini said Simmons never mentioned the fire safety story specifically, but she claimed there were numerous errors in recent issues, without citing specific examples. Crespolini also said she told him that she was tasked with bringing the Youngtown back under control, but didn’t say by whom.
To this day, the paper has never been asked to make any corrections to its fire safety story. Their coverage received first place in the New Jersey Press Association’s college newspaper contest in the two-year collegiate investigative reporting category.
Crespolini said his conversation with Simmons escalated to her asking for prior review of all future stories — then threatening to pull funding from the paper.
SPLC Staff Attorney Sommer Ingram Dean said the law prohibits this kind of retaliation against student journalists.
“A public school employee cannot starve a student publication of funding because he or she doesn’t like the content the students are producing,” she said. “Any action a public school official takes in an attempt to hinder or silence content in a student publication amounts to unlawful censorship.”
If she wanted to go out there and censor them, she would have to do that on her own
Crespolini said he cited Rosenberger v. Rector in the meeting, the 1995 Supreme Court case that ruled schools cannot place a financial constraint on a student group solely because of its viewpoint or the content it produces.
“I told her that we would work with her,” Crespolini said. “We’re not looking to have an adversarial relationship with the administration, but I also cannot be the one to censor them; and I won’t be the one to censor them.”
“If she wanted to go out there and censor them, she would have to do that on her own,” he continued. “And that’s how we left that meeting.”
This meeting with Simmons would lead to many more, and the Youngtown has been under a microscope since, Crespolini said, and Simmons “sort of became the gatekeeper for information” between the Youngtown and administrators.
“If we would ask the administrators for something, then [Simmons] would respond on their behalf,” Crespolini said. “We would get information from her, as opposed to being able to go to sources directly.”
College President Iacono stopped submitting his weekly column to the paper for the year. Youngtown’s archived editions show Iacono’s column in five of the seven issues in spring 2017 and in the first two issues of fall 2017. The initial fire safety story ran in the third edition that fall; Iacono’s column did not run in that issue or any following issue for the rest of the year.
“From then on, it was a series of meetings with administration, questions about our content … it was a constant strain of meetings and pressure for the next two years,” Crespolini said.
Crespolini denied full-time position
Crespolini applied for a full-time faculty position in CCM’s Department of Communication late into the fall 2017 semester. His application was advanced unanimously by Liberal Arts Dean Bruce Dutra and by the search committee.
Dutra told SPLC that he spoke with Simmons before completing the hiring process and she told him there were reservations about hiring Crespolini full-time. The college decided against hiring Crespolini after all.
Crespolini took this information to CCM’s Board of Trustees, who passed the matter to Iacono. He was told the search was just being delayed, and he should re-apply in spring 2018.
Pressure to step down
During that spring, Crespolini said Simmons summoned him into another meeting, where she suggested removing Friedensohn as editor-in-chief. “I asked her why… and she said ‘well I just want to make sure that everyone has a chance who wants to be editor-in-chief,’” Crespolini said.
Crespolini said he explained that the Youngtown has a process for choosing successors; each upcoming editor-in-chief has a full semester in training before taking over. He said Simmons thought three semesters was too much, even though the paper’s previous adviser had allowed students to act as editors in chief it for five and six semesters.
In August 2018, Friedensohn said he met with Simmons, where she again suggested he step down so another student could take over.
Friedensohn said he had no plans to do that, and explained Wyszkowski had already started training to take over in spring 2019.
In November 2018, Wyszkowski and Gentile published a story on student groups losing access to club space in a campus building.
“Adam and I got called into an urgent meeting with Dr. Simmons and the college president Dr. Iacono, where they tell us they’re personally offended by stories we wrote … about the club room,” Wyszkowski said.
We didn’t report on it last spring because we were worried we were going to get in trouble
The students said Iacono and Simmons used this meeting to try and convince them to write a follow-up story explaining the benefits of the new student success center on campus. It wasn’t a direct request, Gentile said, but administrators were “highly suggesting” they write the piece.
“We were the ones who finally said ‘do you want us to write a follow-up story?’ But that’s only after an hour meeting of them just beating around the bush the entire time,” he said.
After the students asked this, Wyszkowski said administrators gave them already prepared material needed for the follow-up and what they wanted in the story.
Wyszkowski and Gentile said they decided against writing a follow-up piece because they felt administrators would be dictating the Youngtown’s coverage.
Students ended up losing their club space again in later semesters.
“Students lost all their club space, and this happened two more times after the first time, but we didn’t report on it last spring because we were worried we were going to get in trouble like we did the first time,” she said.
Crespolini said this is a prime example of CCM administrators effectively intimidating students from doing accountability journalism.
“I said whether [administrators are] offended or not, they need to keep that stuff to themselves, because telling you that they’re offended and insinuating that you’re going to get in trouble, or that the administration is angry at you, is a bonafide restraint,” he said.
When Wyszkowski took over as editor-in-chief during the spring semester, she said the news cycle slowed down and there wasn’t much happening on campus, but that didn’t stop Simmons from frequently coming to the newsroom and pitching stories that showed the school only in a positive light.
Crespolini said he and Simmons met to discuss a matter unrelated to the Youngtown on July 22.
After the short meeting, Crespolini said their conversation took a hard turn when Simmons told him she had recommended he no longer teach classes at CCM because the communications department was moving in a new direction with the speech program.
Crespolini said he then asked what this would mean for the Youngtown. Simmons told him the school wanted a full-time faculty member advising the Youngtown, and his replacement had already been hired six months prior.
When he left this meeting, Crespolini was no longer the Youngtown’s adviser and had lost his teaching position at CCM.
Crespolini said he didn’t disagree with her reasoning, and who runs the paper is ultimately her decision to make. But he said administrators would have to be the ones who told Wyszkowski and her staff why he was gone.
The Youngtown staff say administrators didn’t inform them over summer, and they didn’t find out Crespolini was gone until after their first production of the fall semester, when no adviser showed up.
Cutting the budget
CCM Director of Campus Life Phelps and Wyszkowski met a handful of times during August to discuss the Youngtown’s finances. Wyszkowski said Phelps “wanted to cut the budget of the Youngtown printing by 80 percent.”
Wyszkowski said CCM pays for the paper’s printing costs, pizza on production nights and award submissions. Students are not paid or receive credit for working at the Youngtown.
Phelps’ first idea, she said, was to put the newspaper on printer paper and staple the pages together.
“I passed it back to him over the table and I was like, ‘can you read this?’” she said. “And he was like ‘well, no,’ and I’m like, well why are you suggesting this?”
Hiestand wrote a letter of support for the Youngtown journalists, saying he’d never seen anything like this proposal.
“I have worked with the Student Press Law Center for about 30 years,” he said. “Were the Youngtown Edition to follow Mr. Phelps’ directive to print on copy paper stapled together it would, as far as I know, have the inglorious distinction of being the only college student newspaper in the country to do so,” he said.
Wyszkowski said she cut a deal with Phelps to keep printing the newspaper as before if she could increase ad sales from $1,900 to $6,000. She made the deal knowing more than tripling the paper’s advertising revenue would be almost impossible. Wyszkowski is the only person on staff who handles advertisements.
Wyszkowski told the Board of Trustees she “left this meeting feeling abused and manipulated.”
A new adviser
The day after putting out their first paper of the school year, Wyszkowski was called into a meeting by Phelps, who told her Crespolini was no longer working at the college.
“I stayed in Phelps office for a long time,” she told the Board of Trustees during the Nov. 19 meeting, “… I couldn’t stop crying.”
“I couldn’t help but wonder if the reasons for why was related to the deal I cut with Phelps and if maybe there wasn’t even enough money for an advisor,” she continued.
The paper’s new adviser made his first appearance on the day of the Youngtown’s second production in late September and left the role after the third production in October.
I couldn’t stop crying
“The guy that [Simmons] hired has no journalism experience at all,” Crespolini said. “The guy that she hired never even worked on a campus publication.”
The new adviser was also instructing seven classes and didn’t know how to use Google Drive, the platform used for all of the Youngtown’s operations, Wyszkowski said.
The adviser did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Wyszkowski said when she spoke with the adviser, he told her he had never been given a job description, and he assumed he’d just be checking for spelling and grammar errors.
The Youngtown has been without an adviser since.
Wyszkowski told the board she continues to receive numerous emails from Simmons concerning potential stories. One day Simmons emailed Wyszkowski to see if she could meet with her and Iacono, but she declined.
Simmons replied with the following email:
“Alexa, I will let Dr. Iacono know that you are ‘too busy’ to meet with him. Additionally, for the remainder of the semester I will not rely on the Youngtown Edition to serve as an information resource for the student body. We will use another medium to share critical information to students.”
Wyszkowski told the Board of Trustees she thought the email was “highly inappropriate.”
On their own
Gentile said the paper didn’t find out until the third week of November 2019 that the Youngtown’s print circulation was cut in half from 1,200 to 600.
Gentile said they were told by administrators this deal was made two years ago, but Wyszkowski said they spoke with Crespolini and former Youngtown editors who denied this. Wyszkowski also said this was not part of the deal she made with Phelps.
Without an adviser, Wyszkowski said they’re still following the format Crespolini put in place to run the Youngtown, but it’s been challenging, and Crespolini’s journalism experience is often what’s missed the most.
“We have definitely been missing that professional input,” Gentile said.
“He was a really great resource,” Wyszkowski added. “He was hands-off; he offered good advice; he had connections to the news industry.”
Wyszkowski said the Board of Trustees “looked shocked and concerned” during the meeting, but she hasn’t heard from the board or administration since the Nov. 19 meeting, and she’s not really sure what will happen next.
The plan for the Youngtown, she said, is to move forward business as usual without an adviser.
SPLC reporter Joe Severino can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 202-974-6318. Follow him on Twitter at @jj_severino
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 weekly email newsletter.