University of Kansas board fires editor
Journalism faculty say 'poor editorial decisions' justify censorship
KANSAS — With only eight issues left in the fall semester, board members of the student newspaper at the University of Kansas fired its editor in November, claiming he was responsible for a series of decisions that offended readers and tarnished the Kansan’s reputation.
According to an article in The Kansas City Star, the board, which is made up of three journalism faculty members, a student senate representative and the Kansan’s general manager, marketing adviser, editor and business manager, issued a press release regarding the dismissal of editor Spencer Duncan, a senior from Topeka, the first editor dismissal ever at the Kansan.
In the release, the board cited headlines they deemed inappropriate and material that offended the Kansan’s readers as the reasons for Duncan’s dismissal without giving any specific examples. Duncan speculates that the board may have objected to a headline that read “Blow Me” over a story about the campus whistle and a photo caption of a female student with watermelons that read “Nice Melons.”
Ted Frederickson, a journalism professor at the university and an attorney, told a reporter from the Kansan, “The School of Journalism has always walked a fine line between preserving the First Amendment rights of the Kansan and at the same time maintaining academic professionalism,” he said. “I don’t see a desire by the board to censor Kansan free speech. I think they saw it as a performance issue.”
Duncan said no one ever notified him that he was performing below expectations prior to his dismissal. He also told the Kansas City Star that he turned down the opportunity to step down quietly.
“I refused to resign, because that would have been acknowledging that I was a bad editor,” Duncan said. “That was not true.”
John Ginn, Knight Distinguished Professor of Journalism and chair of the Kansan board, tells the story in a different way.
“The board urged [Duncan] to be more careful with some things,” Ginn said. “The bylaws of the Kansan are clear that the editor serves at the pleasure of the board, but he said [the content of the paper] was none of the board’s business. The board members thought this response was arrogant.”
However, Duncan may have been legally correct in his assertion. Courts have repeatedly said that public college student editors cannot be removed for content decisions they make.
In reaction to Duncan’s response, one board member moved that Duncan be removed from his position, and the motion was seconded. The present board members, three faculty members and the business manager, were the only ones who voted on the decision of whether or not to fire Duncan.
Lindsey Henry, a junior, was already chosen editor for the spring semester when she filled in as editor for the remaining eight issues of the fall semester.
Duncan feels that his firing will put future editors in a tough position. “They might feel they have to hold back and not attempt to break tradition,” he said. “They think, ‘If I try this, I might lose my job.’”
Even though the board fired him, Duncan did not abandon the Kansan during the spring semester. He said he will assign stories and write columns for the sports and news departments.
“The people who removed me were not in the newsroom and had not seen me work internally, how I managed the paper,” Duncan said. “I never had anything against anyone in the newsroom.”
Duncan said he does not plan to pursue any legal action against the school.
reports, Spring 1998