Tough Calls


When it comes to protecting the freedom of your students, sometimes the right decision can also be the most costly





Barbara Lach-Smith alleges her contract was not renewed in retaliation for a newspaper story uncovering an outrageous severance package given to her university's ex-president.

Toby Eichas is suing his former high school after he was forced out by administrators who had problems with the content of the school's newspaper.

John Schmitt's suit alleges that he was removed because university officials took issue with stories that showed their school in an unfavorable light.

The common thread: Advisers who chose to maintain their journalistic principles ' and as a result lost their jobs.

Their situations are by no means unique, as every year there are several advisers removed from their posts by disgruntled administrators. While administrators justify the dismissals as the result of everything from spelling errors to mismanagement of funds, the bottom line is that advisers were replaced because they refused to compromise their beliefs.

 

Paying the Price

In the case of Ransick, he said he was unceremoniously booted from the newspaper adviser post at Arapahoe Community College in Littleton, Colo., in July because he was 'absolutely unwilling to perform prior review of any kind.'

'I believe it is my commitment to teaching good journalism, and my effectiveness in doing just that, which made them want to remove me,' he said.

Ransick said that while administrators told him the primary reason for his dismissal was due to the presence of copy errors, he is confident that he was shown the door after 10 years of service for refusing to 'violate the rights of my students.'

Michele Brown, editor of Arapahoe's Rapp Street Journal, supports her former adviser and complains that the school hired an adviser who has 'agreed to do the things that Chris would not do.' As a result, Brown said, the quality of the publication ' and the educational experience of the newspaper staff is suffering. The adviser who took over for Ransick has since resigned, leaving him hopeful that he will regain his position.

While Ransick was apparently dismissed for refusing to conduct prior review, Lach-Smith contends that she lost her job at Central Missouri State University in June 2000 in response to stories covered in the school's newspaper. Lach-Smith, who advised the Muleskinner staff for six years, said her contract was not renewed because of stories that uncovered unusual provisions in outgoing university President Ed Elliott's contract, including special benefits for Elliott's wife and personal computer services.

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

Nevertheless, Lach-Smith lost her job when university President Bobby Patton ordered the reclassification of the adviser position from a non-tenure track to a tenure-track position. Lach-Smith applied for the position, but was never interviewed. She filed suit in June 2000. The case is still pending.

A similar situation occurred at Boca Raton High School, where Eichas is suing the school, alleging he was removed from his teaching position because his students published controversial articles.

The problems began during the 1998-99 school year when The Predator printed several controversial columns containing Jewish stereotypes and sexual innuendoes.

After the incident, principal Diana Harris demanded to review every issue of the newspaper before publication. In protest, Eichas resigned, as did the student editor. Harris later told Eichas that his teaching contract would not be renewed.

Eichas filed a lawsuit in October 1999 in the Palm Beach County Circuit Court. The suit is still pending because the school did not want to settle out of court, his lawyer Charles Wender said.

The principal's failure to renew Eichas's contract 'was retaliation for his speaking up on behalf of the students,' Wender said. 'There is no question about that.'

In another adviser dismissal that is pending in the courts, Schmitt is suing Fort Valley State University in Georgia, alleging that his firing was partly the result of press censorship.

Schmitt's contract was not renewed in the spring of 1998 after he had spent one year as an assistant professor of mass communications. Schmitt, who is white, also claims racial bias played a role in his dismissal at the rural, predominately black campus, 25 miles southwest of Macon, where he advised The Peachite.

Schmitt said administrators were not impressed with The Peachite's award-winning stories.

One story alleged that Josephine Davis, the university vice president for academic affairs, engaged in questionable financial dealings in her previous position at a New York university. Another story claimed campus security might not have properly treated a student's asthma attack. The student later died.

'There is no question that the dismissal was, in part, an attempt to censor the newspaper,' Schmitt said after his firing.

At Schmitt's request, College Media Advisers voted to censure Fort Valley State ' only the second time in its history that the organization deemed censure necessary.

Hollie Manheimer, a Decatur-based American Civil Liberties Union attorney who is representing Schmitt, said the trial is scheduled to begin in early 2002. As part of the outcome of the suit, she hopes to 'craft a policy that will protect advisers.'

 

Fighting Back

So what are advisers to do when they are asked to compromise their journalistic principles? How do advisers stay true to their profession while keeping their job in the profession?

'Do your best to make sure that the paper is perfect ' don't give the administration an excuse,' said Dale Harrison, director of journalism at Youngstown State University in Ohio. Harrison points specifically to Kincaid v. Gibson, the case where administrators used copy errors as an excuse to censor a college yearbook. Even though Kincaid was eventually decided in favor of college media in January 2001, Harrison said, administrators continue to use the same justifications at all education levels.

'If you work hard to make sure that your staff is putting out a good quality product, it puts you in a good position to bargain from,' Harrison said.

He added that keeping typos out of a paper is a tricky situation, because some administrators use the excuse of preventing grammatical errors to perform prior review ' and can then censor stories not to their liking.

So how do you keep mistakes in the paper at a minimum without performing censorship? The 2001 Dow Jones Newspaper Fund high school journalism teacher of the year said it all comes down to trusting students.

'If you treat your journalism students as part of a real staff with real news, it puts a different twist on things so that the students will perform to higher standards,' said Terry Nelson of Muncie Central High School. 'It has a lot to do with expectations.'

Nelson is a veteran of two contentious student-press battles. In the first, she was fired from an advising job in 1979 for refusing to tell administrators the author of a letter to the editor. After the school board agreed to her conditions for student-press rights, Nelson was reinstated. Nineteen years later, her job at Muncie was threatened when she refused to sign an agreement to turn over the student newspaper to the principal for prior review. She survived the threat, staying on while the principal and school board members moved on.

As Nelson's example shows, it is possible to stand up to authority without paying the price of your employment. But one adviser who was not so lucky, and has suffered as a result, warned advisers that they should know the risks that come from taking principled positions.

'Tell your students the whole truth; they make decisions that will affect very much the rest of your life,' Lach-Smith said. 'We try to teach students to make responsible editorial decisions because they affect their sources' lives [and] also whole organizations. I think we often fail to tell them how their decisions affect our lives'. Be prepared to lose in more ways than one.'

As for Ransick, he said his sacrifice may have been well worth the price.

'Oddly enough, I think the students learned the lessons better by watching what happened than they would have in the abstract by reading it in a textbook. They've gotten the lesson better than they ever could have otherwise.'

Harrison said advisers should 'keep their cool and try to educate people. Too often the gauntlet is thrown down too early, and there is not good level-headed conversation with administrators.'

The one thing all the experts agree upon is that advisers must far too often make the choiceless choice between their livelihood and their principles. Nelson offers guiding words to those who are put in the perilous position: 'The most important thing is to do what's right. I'm going to do what's best for the students, and if that means that I can't be a teacher ' then I guess I shouldn't be a teacher.'


reports, Winter 2001-02