Editors file lawsuit against state university for actions designed to paralyze publication

Students seek legal remedy following months of turmoil

ILLINOIS -- Several months of controversy surrounding Governors State University's student newspaper will likely drag on following a decision by student editors to sue the university for violating their First Amendment rights.

Although school officials said the editors can publish at any time and have simply chosen not to, the students say their ability to produce a newspaper has been effectively crippled.

The editor and managing editor of The Innovator filed suit against the GSU Board of Trustees and three administrators Jan. 24 alleging that administrators exercised prior restraint by ordering the paper's printer not to publish The Innovator again unless an administrator has read the paper and approved its content.

GSU has filed a motion to dismiss the case, but no hearing dates have been set, according to Tamara Cummings, the students' attorney.

In their complaint, Innovator editor Jeni Porche and managing editor Margaret Hosty claim officials tampered with their mail, locked them out of the newspaper office, replaced a computer without consent and denied them access to equipment and supplies.

"We can secure nothing in the [Innovator] office," Porche said. "We don't know how many people have access [to it]." Connie Zonka, director of public affairs at GSU, disputed the editors' description of the situation.

"A lot of the accusations are simply unfounded they can go into their office and publish a newspaper any time," she said.

The last issue of The Innovator was published Oct. 31, and Hosty and Porche believe the likelihood that publication will resume anytime soon is almost nil. They allege the university has withheld payment to editors and other staff members and that the staff does not have access to the equipment and supplies necessary to produce the paper. Many GSU students are in their late twenties or early thirties, have families and cannot afford not to be paid for their work, Porche said.

The women's terms as editors expired at the end of April, but the university has yet to pay them for work they did during the fall trimester, Hosty said. She claims the university owes her and Porche "several thousand [dollars] a piece," and that the university also owes them money for part of their work done last summer.

The editors believe the administration's attempts to rein in the paper stem from the content of investigative reports published in The Innovator exposing wrongdoing by university officials.

"The paper during our tenure has been far more critical of the university than previous issues [had been]," Porche said. "I believe the administration got concerned."

Former Innovator adviser Geoffroy De Laforcade said he believes it was the Oct. 31 issue that angered the administration most. In that issue, Hosty wrote a news article detailing De Laforcade's grievance against the school concerning the termination of his employment.

It "infuriated the administration," he said.

De Laforcade also said he believes an investigation by Hosty and Porche, who are also both student senators, into the Student Media Communication Board's records alarmed administrators.

In response to the Oct. 31 issue, GSU president Stuart Fagan sent an open letter to the university community accusing The Innovator of failing to meet "basic journalistic standards," and saying the issue contained "an angry barrage of unsubstantiated allegations."

Roger Oden, dean of the college of arts and sciences, also wrote an open letter that described Hosty's article on De Laforcade's grievance as "a collection of untruths being written with the intent and purpose to damage my reputation."

In addition to the problems they face as editors, Porche and Hosty say the controversy has prevented them from finishing their master's degrees on time.

Professors who had said they were willing to advise the students' thesis projects have "now pulled away," Hosty said, adding, "we can't graduate."

Before the problems with the newspaper, Porche was on track to graduate in December and Hosty in April.

Zonka said she is unaware of any attempts by school officials to prevent The Innovator from publishing. "They have had access [to their office] we're quite saddened by this. It's a very unfortunate situation," she said.

Although GSU's administration has not yet complied with the students' requests, Cummings said, "No one can dispute that we have a valid claim."

reports, Spring 2001