Blank page causes uproar at Auburn University
Trustee refuses to answer newspaper's questions; editor in chief comes under fire for leaving blank space on front page in protest
\nALABAMA - Freedom of the press has been pushed to the limit\nat Auburn University. The school's weekly newspaper, The Auburn\nPlainsman, and its editor in chief, Lee Davidson, came under\nfire for a series of investigative articles that called for the\nresignation of one of the university's trustees.
On Dec. 3, the paper published white space covering most of\nits front page in protest to Robert Lowder, a prominent businessman\nand active alumnus, who refused to talk to Davidson or her staff\nabout a Plainsman investigation.
The Plainsman was looking into the mid-season resignation\nof head football coach Terry Bowden, alleging that Lowder, a university\ntrustee, had influenced the move. The paper also reported that\nLowder may have had influence over the way other board members\nvoted on certain issues.
The page printed on Dec. 3 consisted of just one big headline,\nstating, "Speak Lowder, we can't hear you." Also on\nthe front page were two photos, three quotes and four paragraphs\nexplaining the page's significance.
On Jan. 7, the school's communications board voted 5-4 to censure\nDavidson for her series of stories and the Dec. 3 issue. The resolution\nthreatened Davidson by saying the board would further review her\nwork at the paper and take further action if necessary. The five\nvotes in favor of censure came from the student representatives\non the board, four of whom are part of the student government.\nThe four dissenting votes were cast by the four faculty representatives.
The communications board oversees all campus publications and\nhas the right to fire the editor of any of them, but that decision\ncould be overruled by Auburn University President William Muse.
Davidson said that the censure would not affect the editorial\ncontent of the newspaper, which is distributed weekly to the student\nbody of 22,000. She told the Mobile Register that she had\nno comment on the details of the resolution, only that she found\nit to be inappropriate.
"I'm sorry if we hurt some feelings, but we are here to\nenforce the rules and that's what we're going to do," said\nAsim Masood, a senior English major who is on the communications\nboard.
Masood told the Huntsville Times that the resolution\ntargeted three things, including the communications board's opinion\nof how Davidson is running the paper, biased reporting and the\npaper's failure to give advance notice to people who are the subject\nof negative articles or editorials.
Jerry Brown, head of the department of journalism, was one\nof the four to cast a dissenting vote.
"It doesn't speak well for the student government, because\nI don't think they understand what free press is," said Brown.\n"They want the communications board to set editorial policy."
On Jan. 12, the faculty-driven University Senate voted 60-4\nto support the Plainsman and Davidson. They called for\nthe communications board to rescind its reprimand.
On Feb. 4, the communications board proposed a "substitute"\nresolution, according to Dennis R. Bailey, Davidson's lawyer.\nThe resolution was reworded to remove from the original the threat\nto Davidson's job as editor in chief.
"The Board chooses not to interfere formally with the\ndecisions of the Editor at this time, showing a respect for the\nrights of the Editor," the resolution read.
Bailey had warned the communications board that its threat\nto fire Davidson in its original censure resolution violated her\nFirst Amendment rights.
"The resolution, amended or not, would keep an implicit\nthreat of future action over Ms. Davidson's head," argued\nBrown, who said that the entire measure should be rescinded, not\njust the wording threatening Davidson.
In April, Davidson was awarded the Auburn Chapter of the Association\nof American University Professor's academic freedom award, the\nfirst student to receive such an accolade.
According to Yvonne Kozlowski, Auburn's head librarian and\nchair of the awards committee, Davidson was given the award for\nher "dedication to First Amendment rights and the freedom\nof the press and refusal to back down when she was censured and\nattacked for her editorial comments."
President Muse has said a committee would be formed to re-examine\nthe actions of the communications board in this situation, once\nit has been resolved.
"I think these students have learned a lesson. They took\na shot at Lee Davidson, and they hit the First Amendment,"\nsaid Brown in an interview with the Mobile Register. "That's\na good lesson to learn"
View the Dec. 3, 1998, issue of the Plainsman at "http://www.auburn.edu/student_info/plainsman/archives/98FA/1203/front.html"
reports, Spring 1999