Journalism organizations flock to KSU adviser's side





INDIANA – Four journalism groups, including the nation’s largest professional journalist organization, have criticized or censured Kansas State University for firing student newspaper adviser Ron Johnson last spring.

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More than 150 critics have signed an online petition calling on Kansas State University to rescind the decision.

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In May Johnson was reassigned from his position as the adviser of the Kansas State University Collegian following controversy surrounding the newspaper’s diversity coverage. In July, Johnson and former Collegian Editor in Chief Katie Lane filed a lawsuit against the university claiming the university violated their First Amendment rights. In September, the university filed a motion to dismiss the case. The lawsuit is pending.

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After hearing about Johnson’s reassignment, the Society of Professional Journalists, which has a membership of more than 10,000, sent a task force to Kansas State University’s campus to investigate the case.

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Despite the task force publishing a divided report, the SPJ board members voted unanimously to condemn Kansas State University’s actions at the organization’s annual convention in New York in September. In their resolution the SPJ called Kansas State’s actions a "clear violation of the principles of free speech and a free press."

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"Administrators have come to realize that if the Constitution and the courts prohibit them from interfering with content in the collegiate press, [the way they deal with it] is to get rid of advisers that support that position," former SPJ President Mac McKerral said.

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Task force chairman Neil Ralston said the resolution sends a message to media organizations that support student journalism.

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Ralston also said that Kansas State University’s decision was especially upsetting due to the quality of the university’s journalism program.

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The online petition, signed by Kansas State University students and faculty, members of the professional and student media, journalism educators, and other interested parties, called for Johnson’s reinstatement for his own sake but also "because we see it is in the best interest of K-State's journalism program."

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The letter accuses Todd Simon, the director of Kansas State’s School of Journalism and Mass Communications, of making the decision not to reappoint Johnson because of the Collegian’s content. Simon said a "content analysis [of the Collegian] made up part of the basis for the recommendation."

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The letter goes on to warn the university that without Johnson’s reinstatement, the aforementioned parties cannot advise journalism students to attend Kansas State University.

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The College Media Advisers board condemned the institution as "oppressive of students’ rights to free expression and hostile toward those professionals it employs to advise the student press." This is just the third time the College Media Advisers board has censured a university.

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Ron Spielberger, executive director of the College Media Advisers said the board wrote their letter after a visit to the campus. "A letter is a formal way to lay it out and to remind the university and those people who took this action as to what First Amendment [rights] that we feel that they are violating," Spielberger said.

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In addition, Spielberger said the letter ensured other journalism organizations were aware these violations were taking place.

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In May the Western Association of University Publication Managers, a group of 29 directors of student publications from across the country, wrote a letter to Kansas State President Jon Wefald, expressing their alarm over Johnson’s removal.

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"The removal compromises the principle of editorial independence at public colleges and universities, and ignores the clear mandate of the First Amendment," the group said.

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Johnson said he is grateful for the support.

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"It’s been very gratifying and very humbling and I appreciate that very much," Johnson said. "In the past the administration of K-State has been receptive to that kind of feedback. So far that hasn’t happened."



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reports, Winter 2004-05