When controversial coverage lands on advisers

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Embattled advisers should look to alumni networks, training and legislation to protect their jobs.

By Debra Landis
University of Illinois Springfield

This year hardly had started before another college media adviser was fired following a controversy over student-managed content. Paul Isom, the student publications director at East Carolina University, lost his job after editors at the The East Carolinian newspaper published a full-frontal photo of a streaker among a series of photos on the front page.

Students published unedited "streaker" photos in November; adviser fired in January.

Isom joined at least 14 other college publication advisers who have been fired or reassigned since 2007 for what they contend resulted from content published in their student newspapers, according to the Student Press Law Center.

ECU Public Affairs Director Mary Schulken would not comment to CMR on the firing of Isom but called The East Carolinian an “editorially independent” student newspaper, a position the administration also took in a Nov. 8 media advisory, nearly two months before Isom was fired.

The number of advisers who have been fired following controversial coverage could be much higher, says Mark Witherspoon, adviser to the Iowa State Daily.

“College media advisers are fired or reappointed all the time, and we may just not know about it,” said Witherspoon, a CMA Hall of Fame member and former president who chairs the CMA’s First Amendment Committee, in an interview before the news of Isom’s firing was widely known.

And while there are no magic bullets to protect advisers, there are steps they can take to protect themselves against being fired because of content students have chosen to publish, said Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center.

Advisers can develop “censorship resistance” through the development of alumni and news media networks whose members can provide training for advisers and students and serve as sounding boards when controversies arise, LoMonte said.

When advisers do sense their supervisors have concerns about their job performances, advisers should take the initiative to meet with the supervisors to address the issues, says T.R. Hanrahan, who writes a blog and maintains the website for the Fired Adviser Comfort Team, an offshoot of the Student Press Law Center. “Trust your instincts,” he said.

The removal or reappointment of a college media advisers because of what the student journalists they advise have decided to publish or broadcast is as much of a form of censorship as the threat to withdraw funding on the same grounds, LoMonte said.

Hanrahan said he knows firsthand what can happen from that kind of backlash.

The Missouri College Press Association adviser of the year in 2010, Hanrahan was dismissed as college newspaper adviser at Missouri Southern State University in April 2011 after The Chart newspaper’s report that the university had hired an accounting professor who had been convicted of embezzlement in Ohio.

“I saw it coming for a year or more,” said Hanrahan. “But looking back, I was naïve. I was advising the college newspaper I edited as a student.”

At the time, university administrators said they “wanted to make a change” but didn’t elaborate, according to Hanrahan, who contends his dismissal was related to content.

The professor later resigned, according to several news articles from the Associated Press, and The Chart won an SPJ Mark of Excellence award for its reporting. In previous years, the Associated Press reported, the newspaper had broken a story on university’s planned closing of a child development center — a decision that later was reversed — and had newspapers with a story on declining campus enrollment removed by the university from a high school recruitment fair.

Hanrahan characterized the investigative story about the accounting professor who had been convicted of embezzling as “the last straw” for the university.

A university spokesman did not respond to several requests seeking comment for this College Media Review story.

Being preemptive doesn’t mean being paranoid but does involve educating supervisors and others about case law, the College Media Association’s Code of Ethical Behavior (which says advisers are professional educators and mentors but not censors), and why it’s important for college media to be editorially independent.

Members of college and state press associations may want to work toward passage of legislation prohibiting advisers from being fired or transferred because of content in the media they advise.

Illinois and California are the only states in the nation with a law prohibiting the dismissal or reappointment of an adviser at a public university or college because of content, according to LoMonte. The College Campus Press Act, which also pertains to community colleges, took effect in June 2008.

The Illinois act was passed without concerted lobbying efforts, recalled media law expert James Tidwell, chair of the journalism department at Eastern Illinois University and a member of the CMA’s Hall of Fame.

“There were not thousands of phone calls or letters (promoting the law’s introduction and passage),” Tidwell said. “We received a call that the law was being introduced. It passed overwhelmingly.”

Among its provisions, the state law states that public universities observe the following:

  • “Campus media produced primarily by students at a state‑sponsored institution of higher learning is a public forum for expression by the student journalists and editors at the particular institution;”
  • Campus media, whether campus‑sponsored or non-campus‑sponsored “are not subject to prior review by public officials of a State‑sponsored institution of higher learning;”
  • Collegiate student editors “are responsible for determining the news, opinions, feature content, and advertising content of campus media;” and
  • “Collegiate media adviser must not be terminated, transferred, removed, otherwise disciplined, or retaliated against for refusing to suppress protected free expression rights of collegiate student journalists and of collegiate student editors.”

Tidwell says lawmakers wanted the public to know they supported students’ First Amendment rights. The bill was approved in the wake of the Illinois court case, Hosty v. Carter, in which journalists sued Governors State University after a university dean told the student newspaper’s printer to hold future issues until a school official had approved the student newspaper’s content.

The 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2005 that the Supreme Court’s 1988 Hazelwood decision limiting high school student free expression rights could extend to college and university campuses.  In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to grant an appeal in the case.

“I think Illinois legislators wanted people to know they supported the First Amendment,” Tidwell said.

Debra Chandler Landis is in her 17th year as student publications adviser at the University of Illinois Springfield. At UIS, she advises the news and business operations of the weekly student newspaper, The Journal, as well as The Journal’s semester news and features magazine, Beyond, and The Journal’s summer publication, The Guide. She holds a master’s degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a bachelor’s degree in journalism and sociology from Iowa State University.