Advisers, students fighting spate of adviser firings in six months
Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts. The next story will focus on strategies for developing campus educational initiatives in support of First Amendment and student voices.
By Jody Kleinberg Biehl
University at Buffalo
Three college media advisers been fired in the past six months – a spate Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, calls “one of the worst stretches I can remember.”
Cheryl Reed from Northern Michigan University, James Compton of Muscatine Community College in Iowa, and Patricia Roberts of Delta State University in Mississippi, have all lost positions as student media advisers since November.
And all of them – along with their students — are fighting back.
The cases mark the first time in almost a decade that college media advisers or students have taken legal action against university administrators for First Amendment violations, according to LoMonte.
Reed’s case is the first time LoMonte can remember in which an adviser has filed a lawsuit for wrongful discharge.
“I think we are going to get some guidance and clarity from the courts about the job security of advisers from these cases, for sure,” LoMonte said in an email. “What’s been happening at Northern Michigan and at Muscatine is such blatant cause-and-effect retaliation that I’m not even sure the schools would or could deny it. These situations present very clear choices for the courts about how much they’re willing to protect press freedom on campus, since removing a supportive adviser is one of the most effective ways to undermine freedom of the press.”
Before these lawsuits, LoMonte said he could “count on one hand” the number of lawsuits filed by college media advisers and students; most of the cases were at least 10 years ago and years apart.
No organization – not the Student Press Law Center, nor the Associated Collegiate Press nor the College Media Association – has been tracking adviser firings over the years, so there is no definitive list or way to map trends. But, LoMonte, who is often among the first to hear of a case, said only 2011-2012, when four advisers – Paul Isom, Bradley Wilson, Gayle Brown and Vanessa Curry — were fired in rapid succession, compares to the current situation.
Curry’s situation was, LoMonte said, perhaps the most heart-wrenching he can remember, as she was fired just before she went into brain surgery and was left without health insurance.
He said an average year will see five or six firings, and that in a bad year, there will be seven or eight.
Spring is the most popular time for administrators to “drop the bomb,” said Chris Evans, Student Life Assistant Director for Student Media at the University of Vermont and chair of the adviser advocacy committee for College Media Association.
As CMA adviser advocacy chair, Evans, who also serves as an adviser to the Vermont Cynic and two student radio stations, receives an email when advisers complain to the CMA about treatment by administrators.
He said most years he gets four or five complaints and only some of those result in a letter of concern or a letter of censure from CMA. Most cases don’t end up as lawsuits, he said, because lawsuits can be costly and it’s often hard to prove First Amendment violations. Most often, he said, the adviser is tired of fighting a difficult administration and finds a new job and moves on.
Part of the reason no one is tracking cases of adviser dismissals is that each case is individual and often it’s often hard to tell if censorship was the cause, LoMonte said.
CMA, currently has five schools — Morgan State University, Mount St. Mary’s University, Le Moyne College and Ocean County College — on its censured list, which means CMA investigators have found evidence that administrators have violated students’ First Amendment rights and/or removed an adviser due to the content of the student newspaper. CMA began the adviser advocacy program in 1998 and has censured nine schools, Evans said.
Sadly, being censured often has little effect on a university and as such adviser advocacy has struggled to find its role, Evans said.
“Universities don’t really care about being denounced by a college media group,” he said. “It only works if it is being done in conjunction with other organizations.”
For instance, he said, censure would mean more if CMA and other organizations issued censures in tandem with the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, which gives out accreditation. Then, he said, censure would become a real issue for the school, its reputation and its recruitment and admissions processes.
Evans called the recent cases in Michigan and Iowa “particularly dramatic” and worrying.
LoMonte worries that colleges are getting more complacent and unapologetic about firing advisers they find troublesome. He said the Michigan and Iowa cases presented especially compelling facts that cried out to be challenged.”
In Northern Michigan, Reed, who was fired as adviser of The North Wind in April, but is still an assistant professor with the English Department, filed her lawsuit with student journalist Michael Williams.
In the lawsuit, Reed and Williams say Northern Michigan administrators who make up the newspaper’s executive board have created a hostile environment for free speech on campus and have repeatedly tried to prevent student reporters from writing about topics unfavorable to the university. They accuse the administrators of firing Reed because of her outspoken support for student journalists. And, they say the administrators on the newspaper’s board rejected Williams as incoming editor in chief because of his tough reporting on the university.
Both are asking to be reinstated and they have filed an injunction to prevent the administrators who make up the newspaper’s board from filling their positions. Oral arguments on the temporary injunction are set for June 29. At that time, a federal judge will decide if the positions can be filled.
Reed insists the lawsuit is not about her or her position. In fact, she said, her life would be much easier if she didn’t have to spend long hours working with student journalists and fighting for her students’ rights.
But if she didn’t fight, she worries the problem would continue.
“After spending a year battling for freedom of the press and freedom of speech, nothing would have changed. If I left, all of these infringements would have kept going on. I had to do it,” Reed said.
In Iowa, 12 current and former students at Muscatine Community College filed a similar complaint in the U.S. District Court on May 5, insisting free speech is in jeopardy at Muscatine because administrators are trying to control the content of the Calumet newspaper. They cite a pattern of oppression since 2013 and insist Compton was fired fas retaliation for an article in the paper that criticized the way a faculty member spoke to a student journalist on the phone.
Compton remains on the Muscatine faculty.
In Mississippi, Patricia Roberts is perhaps facing the most egregious situation. In November, despite her status as a tenured associate professor, she was fired both as adviser to the student newspaper The Delta Statement and as the only professor in the school’s journalism department.
The problems, said Roberts, who spent nine years as the faculty adviser to the Delta Statement, began on Oct. 31, when the students wrote about a free speech lawsuit filed against the university by a faculty member.
Over the next few weeks, Roberts, said, Delta State University President Bill LaForge cut the newspaper’s $10,000 printing budget, voted not to renew Roberts’ contract and decided to eliminate the school’s entire journalism program.
In three signatures, she said, LaForge eradicated journalism at Delta State, which was one of only three public universities in Mississippi to offer journalism degrees.
“You really can’t be worse that this,” LoMonte said of the Mississippi situation. “You not only eliminate an adviser’s job, but you eliminate an entire academic discipline to punish the student newspaper.”
The university insists the cuts had nothing to do with the aggressive reporting of Roberts’ students, but rather were part of an emergency $1 million budget reduction. LaForge also cut two other programs – communication/theater studies and modern foreign languages.
Roberts believes the cuts were meant to silence the students.
“The Mississippi Press Association offered to give the university $10,000 to keep the paper printing,” said Roberts. “But they (the university) rejected the offer. That shows you this had nothing to do with money.”
She added that $65,000 – the cost of her salary plus benefits – means little to a university with a large budget.
“They are camouflaging it as a money saving technique,” LoMonte said. “But nobody believes that. Everybody knows it’s punitive for the newspapers content.”
Roberts, who has letters of support from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Mississippi Press Association, the Southeast Journalism Conference, the Student Press Law Center and several local media outlets has appealed the firing and insisted, “I will go down with my ship.”
One positive – the only one, really, she said – is the way the cuts and her firing have galvanized her students.
“It’s made the students want journalism more. It has early on called them to a situation that seems like a textbook press issue problem. It’s become real to them. So they are more engaged that ever,” Roberts said, adding, “ I actually think it’s enhanced their education, as sad as it is.“
After the president cut their program and fired Roberts, Delta State students hired a hearse, brought in ashes and an urn and held a funeral, complete with eulogies, for their axed program and 83-year-old student newspaper. The paper will continue as an online site.
At the funeral, journalism student Whitney Carter showed the same type fighting spirit as Roberts. During her eulogy, insisted that the decisions of the administration would not prevent her from standing up for herself or others.
“Journalism may be gone,” she said. “But the journalist in me will never die. So no, I will not be quiet.”
Reed’s students at The North Wind also showed gumption and voiced their discontent in writing. The April 9 edition of The North Wind – the first issue to come out after Reed’s April 3 firing — announced the death of the First Amendment in somber black lettering that fills the front page of the paper.
And the lessons learned in college – even the nastiest ones – stick with young journalists.
Karla Bowsher, now a 32-year-old freelance reporter in South Florida, said fighting for press freedom and adviser rights in college helped her become a tougher reporter. She remembers how a few weeks into her 2010 tenure as editor in chief of Florida Atlantic University’s, the University Press, she learned her staff’s longtime adviser, Michael Koretzky, had been fired.
“At first there was shock and disbelief,” she said. “But then there was a rallying together effect after the firing. A lot of alumni showed up. I was floored by the outpouring of support by people I had never met before. “
Koretszky, who is now SPJ Region 3 director and Florida College Press Association president didn’t file a lawsuit, but he found a way to stay on at the paper anyway — by switching his status to volunteer.
Bowsher went on to work as a government reporter for The Chronicle-Tribune in Marion, Indiana, where she helped uncover a decade’s worth of fiscal mismanagement.
“For me, the experience of being threatened by administrators came in handy,” she said.
It taught her early the need for good journalism and the value of standing up and fighting.
Jody Kleinberg Biehl is a clinical assistant professor in the English department at the University at Buffalo and director of the university’s journalism program. She also serves as advisor to the student newspaper, The Spectrum. Since Biehl became advisor in 2009-2010, The Spectrum has won 14 national media awards. It had not won any in its previous 63-year history. Before coming to UB, she worked in Berlin as an editor at Spiegel Online. At Der Spiegel, she was one of three journalists hired in 2003 to create an English-language website. The site, based in Berlin, now attracts millions of readers per month (www.spiegel.de/international). Before joining Der Spiegel, Ms. Biehl worked as a European correspondent for The San Francisco Chronicle and as a free-lance correspondent for USA TODAY and the Boston Globe. She also spent four years as a general assignment reporter for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, a New York Times-owned paper in Northern California. She won numerous journalism awards during her time at the Press Democrat and in 2000 received an Arthur F. Burns fellowship, which took her to Berlin for three months as a reporter. She has reported from France, England, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Germany. She speaks fluent French and German.