MICHIGAN — Grand Valley Lanthorn Sports Editor Kellen Voss conducted what started out as a fairly routine interview with newly-hired Grand Valley State University football offensive coordinator, Morris Berger. Things took a turn when Voss asked Berger for three historical (non-football) figures he’d like to have dinner with, and Berger said Adolf Hitler.
KV: “So you graduated from Drury with a degree in History, you’re a history guy. If you could have dinner with three historical figures, living or dead, who would they be? And I’m ruling out football figures.“
MB: “This is probably not going to get a good review, but I’m going to say Adolf Hitler. It was obviously very sad and he had bad motives, but the way he was able to lead was second-to-none. How he rallied a group and a following, I want to know how he did that. Bad intentions of course, but you can’t deny he wasn’t a great leader.“
Within a few days, the Lanthorn had been asked by the university to alter the story, complied, changed course and added the full interview back in, and then made national news. The story even ended up in the monologue of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.
Berger resigned Thursday, Jan. 30, after being suspended, according to a Lanthorn article.
The original Q&A was published on Thursday, Jan. 23. Lanthorn Editor-in-Chief Nick Moran said the athletics department called Voss on Saturday, Jan. 25 and asked him to take down the quote because it didn’t reflect well on the new coach. Voss took it down.
On Sunday, after a lengthy conversation with editors and the faculty adviser, the Lanthorn put the quote back up. Moran said the Lanthorn’s long standing unofficial policy for unpublishing quotes is that if information is said on the record, the Lanthorn holds the right to publish that information and not take it down upon request. He said it was a mistake to take the quote down in the first place.
“We owe it to the audience to tell the whole truth, no matter how ugly it gets for someone,” Moran told the Student Press Law Center in a phone interview. “So, we reinstated the original piece. We thought that was the most journalistically ethical and sound thing to do.”
Once the Lanthorn republished the quote, the story went viral. It was covered in the Washington Post, ESPN, and Sports Illustrated.
SPLC’s Senior Legal Counsel Mike Hiestand said the athletics department was within their legal rights to ask the Lanthorn to unpublish the quote, but it would have been illegal for the school to demand its removal or threaten any kind of retaliation for not taking the quote down. That’s because Grand Valley State is a public school, and courts have ruled they can’t dictate content or retaliate for content-based reasons.
“They could go and make that request, as long as that’s what it was — a request,” Hiestand said. “Typically, it comes with some force behind it, and at that point, it would be illegal. I just hope [the Lanthorn] felt that taking the quote down was a voluntary act.”
Moran said Voss was in a tough position — he was approached by a person in power, and that got the better of him.
“That’s a difficult situation for a student journalist to be in, especially when someone in power comes to you asking you to take something down,” Moran told SPLC. “That’s when the student hat comes before the journalist hat.”
Grand Valley State President Philomena Mantella sent a letter on Jan. 29 to the Lanthorn, commending them for republishing the quote.
SPLC reached out to Lanthorn advisor Eric Harvey and Sports Editor Kellen Voss for comment, but Moran was the only one to respond. He said he was furnishing all media requests for the Lanthorn. SPLC also reached out to the Grand Valley State athletics department for comment. They directed us to university communications, which forwarded us the letter.
SPLC reporter Cameren Boatner can be reached by email at email@example.com or by calling 202-974-6317. Follow her on Twitter @camerenboatner
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