Adviser sues school for ending contract

Lawsuit says firing is attempt to censor newspaper's content

MISSOURI -- A former college newspaper adviser filed a lawsuit in June against Central Missouri State University, alleging her termination was in response to stories covered in the school's newspaper.

Barbara Lach-Smith, who advised the Muleskinner staff for six years, said her contract was not renewed because of stories uncovering unusual stipulations in outgoing university President Ed Elliott's contract, including $620,000 in severance pay, special benefits for Elliott's wife and personal computer services.

James Rynard, Lach-Smith's attorney, said he can prove that the school violated Lach-Smith's civil rights and infringed on students' First Amendment rights.

"We're very confident in our claims," Rynard said. "I think that we're going to see a big fight by the university; they are probably going to claim they followed all the proper procedures and there was no retaliation, but I think we have a strong case to show that that was indeed the case. I think we can show their alleged following of procedures was just pretext, that they had every intent to not allow her to continue in the job."

Muleskinner staff members started to look into administrators' contracts after the school's board of governors violated the state's sunshine law by holding a closed meeting to discuss hiring a new president.

The contract information uncovered by the Muleskinner prompted state auditor Claire McCaskill to investigate the school. McCaskill's report found "improper compensation and perquisites" in Elliott's contract.

Ann Pearce, a university spokeswoman, said the school cannot comment on personnel matters.

According to Rynard, Central Missouri State officials contended that Lach-Smith's contract was not renewed because school administrators decided to make the newspaper adviser a tenure-track position. Officials did say Lach-Smith was considered for the new tenure-track position but was not one of the four finalists selected.

Rynard said Lach-Smith is suing to get her job back.

"[She wants] reinstatement to her position," Rynard said. "She likes the newspaper and likes the students she works with."

Her students want her back, too. Darrin Sparks, a former reporter for the Muleskinner who helped to uncover Elliott's contract, said Lach-Smith was more than just a journalism teacher to many students at the school.

"She was an adviser, but she was one of those that you don't only talk about newspaper business with," Sparks said. "If something happens at home you would talk to her about that too, so she was a friend, she was more than just an adviser."

Fall 2000, reports