Protecting free speech is no easy task
Advisers removed after defending students' press rights
Students at universities around the nation are using their First Amendment free press rights to cover controversial topics, but in some cases it has cost their advisers their jobs.
At Fort Valley State University in Georgia, newspaper adviser John Schmitt’s contract was not renewed this spring. The newspaper has covered several topics in the last year that has created a stir with the administration. Schmitt said he had given the students the editorial freedom to cover what they felt was newsworthy.
“[The students have] never been allowed to do this sort of thing,” Schmitt said referring to the newspaper’s hard hitting coverage.
Schmitt said that the university wanted him to use prior review to filter out articles that would reflect negatively on the school. He said that their interest in censorship was evident since the day he interviewed with the school.
“I got the feeling when I first interviewed here that there was lots of undercurrent,” he said. “They kept asking me what I would do if there was a controversial article. They asked me this four times.”
The Peachite has won several awards for their coverage of campus events in the past year. Last fall, the newspaper received a anonymous letter that pointed them to a Newsday article about questionable financial dealings by their new vice-president of academic affairs, Josephine Davis, at York College of the City University of New York, according to Schmitt. He said that she “tried everything to block us.” The newspaper won an award from the Georgia College Press Association for investigative reporting for their stories about Davis, according to Schmidt.
The Peachite also won an award for reporting about an incident when a student died from an asthma attack on campus.
Those awards and the election of two editors to the Georgia College Press Association “made this the most successful year ever for the newspaper,” Schmitt said.
Most recently, the newspaper tried to gain access to the school’s financial records regarding student activity fees. According to Schmitt, there had been rumors that the university was filtering student activity fees into other areas that were not related, such as administration costs. The struggle gained exposure in the local press, and the university finally granted the access, according to Schmitt. The newspaper was able to find that the university had been filtering the student activities fees away from the students, according to Schmitt.
“They could use this money in student activities,” he said. Fort Valley State is located in a rural town where there is little to do, Schmitt said.
Schmitt has contacted the American Association of University Professors as well as the ACLU. The Georgia First Amendment Foundation in Atlanta has agreed to take his case against the university.
“I’m not backing down,” Schmitt said. “What good is it to teach media law and then give up at the first attack?”
Schmitt’s contract runs out August 31. He said the university has yet to interview anyone, and he believes it will be interesting to see what happens.
“It’s going to be interesting because the students now know what their power is,” he said. “I don’t think they’ll put up with [censorship].”
At the University of the Incarnate Word in Texas, newspaper adviser Bruce dePyssler is not so optimistic about what will happen to Logos, the student newspaper. dePyssler was given a terminating contract in March that will end in the spring of 1999.
Although the university says dePyssler’s job is being terminated for two reasons, he says neither of those reasons is valid. In a December 1997 memo, Vice President of Academic Affairs Eduardo Paderon says that dePyssler’s degree is in the wrong area, anthropology, for him to continue in the communications department. dePyssler said that much of the faculty is in the same situation, but their contracts have not been terminated.
Second, Paderon said that dePyssler does not understand the mission of the university. According to Paderon’s memo, the proof is that dePyssler has threatened to sue the school over his removal and has talked to a lawyer.
Although Paderon and the university claim that the newspaper is not an issue in dePyssler’s firing, Paderon says that dePyssler’s advising skills at Logos, the student newspaper, are lacking. dePyssler said that Paderon never talked to the staff of the newspaper and other advisers.
“What got them upset was that the paper became a real paper and was not covering just fluff,” dePyssler said.
dePyssler said that the bylaws of student publications bar him from censoring the newspaper in any way. The by-laws say, “An Editor, however, shall not be bound by an Adviser’s opinions, and an Adviser shall not be held responsible for the content of or the views expressed in the publication. . . . The student press should be free of censorship in advance of copy and its editors and managers should be free to develop their own editorial policies and news coverage.” dePyssler said that the bylaws require him to stand up for the student’s First Amendment rights.
“The bylaws are black and white,” dePyssler said. “I would be more in trouble if I censored the students.”
After years of the newspaper being a “joke,” according to dePyssler, they won the award for best non-daily in a regional college newspaper competition. They also won three other awards last year. dePyssler said that the campus administration, including President Lou Agnese, did not want to recognize Logos’ awards.
dePyssler said that he will fight his removal. He said that the university administration is “very used to getting away with this behavior.”
“The [president] is a bully,” dePyssler said. “He surrounds himself with cowards who are afraid to speak up to him.”
dePyssler said that he will remain at the university until his contract runs out in May 1999. However, he said that if another job came along he would take it.
“I don’t know what [the administration’s] next move will be because no one on campus will [advise the newspaper],” dePyssler said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if they let the paper rot.”
However, the situation is different at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland where the school’s administration dismissed the newspaper’s adviser, Emanuel Hughley.
Hughley is a tenured professor, so he will only lose his job as adviser for The Mosaic.
University administrators told Hughley that he was dismissed due to the poor editing in the newspaper. Hughley said he had been ordered by school officials to edit every copy of the newspaper. He said that the university wanted to institute a prior review policy so that he would make any final edits in grammar before the newspaper went to press.
Hughley, though, said that he told the administration he would do no such thing. He believes the practice to be a violation of the editor’s First Amendment rights.
“The university was asking me to do something unconstitutional,” he said. “I also think it would be unwise.”
He said that if he edited the copy, the university would be liable if something went wrong.
Hughley has contacted the College Media Advisers new Adviser Advocate Program, which is investigating the situation.
reports, Spring 1998