Editors under fire
Imagine you are editor in chief of your college newspaper. Like any day, you walk into your office to check your voice mail, and it is full of angry messages. You check your e-mail. It is loaded with posts from students, faculty and administrators who want you fired.
Then, one of your staffers comes into the office. The local television station wants to ask you some questions about what ran in yesterday’s edition.
When criticism and scrutiny hit the newsroom, it is the editor who absorbs much of the flak. Keeping a cool head — and having a little media savvy — is important when hoards of protesters are calling for your removal, collegiate press experts say. But having a good understanding of school speech policies, your publication board’s bylaws and the law might help more when fighting to keep your job.
Under the microscope
By any account, Mark Rowan has had a tough year as editor of The Recorder, Central Connecticut State University’s student-run newspaper. In February, the newspaper drew national attention when it ran a satirical column titled “Rape only hurts if you fight it.” The day the article ran, the campus erupted in protest, with several groups calling for Rowan’s removal.
The newspaper’s editorial board fired the author — who also was the opinion editor — but the move was not enough to prevent the school’s president from organizing a task force to review The Recorder’s editorial policies.
“It was definitely weird. Some people were trying to say, Oh you wanted all the attention to just get in the spotlight,’” Rowan said. “It was weird finding myself in that place. You turn on the news and they are talking about you, news stations are calling you up. It was a very weird experience.”
In an interview with CNN, Rowan said that running the column was a mistake.
Despite calls for Rowan’s removal, President Jack Miller promised to respect the newspaper’s First Amendment rights throughout the inquiry. Two months after the article ran, the task force recommended The Recorder hire a full-time media adviser and that Central Connecticut create a journalism major to provide more training for Recorder staff.
Media organizations were back again outside The Recorder’s offices in September, after the paper published a cartoon depicting two characters conversing about locking a “14-year-old Latino girl” in a closet and urinating on her.
The cartoon was part of an ongoing series called “Polydongs: based on true idiots.” At the bottom of the strip, a disclaimer read: “The Recorder does not support the kidnapping of (and subsequent urinating on) children of any age or ethnicity.”
The disclaimer proved ineffective, and the following Friday several student groups organized a protest on campus, again calling for Rowan’s removal.
After the incident in February, The Recorder had revamped how it handled potentially controversial material, which included having it reviewed by the all-student editorial board prior to publication. Rowan defended the editorial board’s decision to run the September cartoon, saying board members agreed it was no more offensive than what students would see on an episode of “South Park.”
Miller publicly chastised Rowan and The Recorder, but reminded the public of the newspaper’s protections under the First Amendment.
“I share the concerns of my Latin-American colleagues and students and others for the hurt inflicted by [Rowan’s] decision to run this offensive cartoon,” Miller said in a statement posted on the school’s Web site. “We learned from the work of the Task Force on Journalistic Integrity that there are clear limits about what a state-supported public university can do in response to such actions.”
Both incidents brought unwanted attention to the university and The Recorder. Rowan said it took a while to get used to speaking to the media. In the February incident, Rowan said he was blindsided by the ordeal and was not able to offer any words of wisdom to the staff. All he told them was to be careful when speaking about the controversy.
“At least the first time, in February, I was just as shocked and unprepared as everyone else in the newsroom, so I wasn’t really in any position to give any speeches about what to expect or anything like that,” Rowan said. “Obviously there was a heightened sense to be careful of who you are talking to and what you are saying to them, because, who knows how it can be taken, especially when we were under the microscope by the national and local media.”
Being at the center of a big story was an odd feeling, Rowan said. For editors who find themselves in his position, Rowan advises that they make sure they get their argument across to reporters in a few concise sentences.
“For someone who is speaking to a reporter in front of a camera, make sure that the things that are most important to them when dealing with the controversy are the things that come across in the interview the most,” Rowan said.
“All journalists do it, they’ll have a 10- or 15-minute interview and end up only using two or three sentences,” Rowan said. “I think we sort of, as student journalists, take that for granted and don’t really realize what kind of effect that has on people — Oh, is that the most important thing I was trying to get across?’”
Battling boards, bylaws
Rowan was fortunate that his school’s president recognized the newspaper’s First Amendment protections.
But when editors must fight for their jobs, they should be sure they understand the bylaws under which their publications operate.
At a public university, the organization of a student paper’s governing body can vary widely, but often there is a board — generally composed of both school officials and students — that creates bylaws and oversees all student media, including the student-run newspaper, television or radio station. At Central Connecticut it is called the Student Media Board.
Despite the calls for Rowan to be fired, he was insulated by the board’s bylaws from punishment for speech protected by the First Amendment.
“Editors and managers of student publications and student media shall be protected from suspension and removal because of student, faculty, administrative, or public disapproval of editorial policy and content,” the board’s constitution said.
Rowan said the only body with the power to remove The Recorder’s EIC is the all-student editorial board.
Boards affiliated with a public university generally cannot remove an editor based on protected speech but can fire editors who fail to perform their duties, said Lance Speere, former president of College Media Advisers.
“It’s going to depend upon the operating papers for each student media organization,” said Speere, who also is student publications director at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Speere said legitimate reasons to remove an editor might include failing to meet deadlines or embezzling funds.
Some content might not be protected, however. It is uncertain whether an editor can legally be removed, for example, for publishing defamatory material, said Mike Hiestand, legal consultant for the Student Press Law Center.
“Because defamation is not protected speech, I don’t know whether there would be a First Amendment violation for removing an editor, especially if there were more than a single instance,” Hiestand said, noting that the issue has never been legally tested.
In place of removing an editor outright, some boards or student governments might try to cut funding from the newspaper as punishment for running a controversial piece. It is important to remember, Speere said, that money from the university cannot be taken away based on protected speech.
“There is enough case law that says absolutely no one can start tampering with fees because of the content,” Speere said.
Controversy in Colorado
Despite the protections afforded public school student journalists, some boards — either pressured by administrators or the public — still entertain the idea of ousting an editor.
The latest high-profile battle between an editor and a publications board was at Colorado State University’s flagship Fort Collins campus. In September, The Rocky Mountain Collegian published a four-word editorial — “Taser This, Fuck Bush” — several weeks after a University of Florida student, Andrew Meyer, was tasered by campus police at a John Kerry speech on the Gainesville, Fla., campus.
Editor in Chief David McSwane said the editorial was meant to raise awareness about freedom of speech on college campuses. Critics saw it as an attempt to blame the president for the tasering incident in Florida, or an attempt by McSwane to grab headlines.
The editorial drew national attention and was the subject of tirades from several television pundits. McSwane became the target of protests from groups on and off campus. CSU’s College Republicans gathered some 500 signatures on a petition calling for his dismissal.
In the following weeks, Colorado State’s Board of Student Communications held two meetings to decide whether to punish the newspaper for running the article, potentially by removing McSwane.
The board’s bylaws posed a challenge to those trying to predict whether McSwane would keep his job. One section stated the school could not ban speech solely because some found it “distasteful” or “unpleasant” and could not punish the publication for occasional use of “four-letter words” in publications. Yet, another section stated that “profane or vulgar words are not acceptable in opinion writing.”
The board decided not to remove McSwane. Instead the board issued a statement admonishing him for his decision to run the editorial, calling it “unethical” and “unprofessional,” yet acknowledging his right to print it.
“By definition, the September 21 editorial was an expression of opinion, which we regard as protected by the First Amendment,” the statement said.
But that was not the end of the matter.
Shortly after the uproar over the editorial at CSU died down, Jim Landers, then-interim president of the school’s publications board, proposed a change in its bylaws that would give the board the authority to punish the use of “indecent, vulgar or so called four-letter’ words in student publications.”
The change would have made it easier for the board to punish The Collegian for editorials like the Sept. 21 piece. Landers’ justification was that, because the board considers itself publisher of The Collegian, it has ultimate authority over the paper.
But unlike a private publisher, the board at CSU includes faculty members — government employees — and therefore is an arm of the university itself, said Hiestand. Hiestand said regardless of any bylaws the board might have had, it still would have violated McSwane’s First Amendment rights by punishing or removing him for running the editorial.
The board was scheduled to vote on the proposed change in December. But about two weeks before the meeting, Landers withdrew the proposal and resigned in protest. Landers called the EIC of The Collegian the de facto publisher, and said he found that unacceptable.
Private and independent
Editors at private universities have more limited options when defending themselves. Administrators at private institutions are not bound by the same Constitutional limits as their public counterparts.
Some private schools voluntarily promise to give students the same rights as they would have at public institutions. And in California, the 1992 Leonard Law grants free-expression rights to all student publications, whether at public or private colleges.
But editors at many private schools have little or no legal protection from being removed based on content.
The lack of First Amendment protections does not mean all student newspapers operate under the thumb of their administrators, and many schools are hesitant to threaten an editor’s job.
“The more enlightened private schools would tend to limit it to acts of omission, where they just don’t do their job,” said James Tidwell, chairman of the department of journalism at Eastern Illinois University.
To shelter themselves from administrative control, some newspapers become independent, converting to private corporations. At Vanderbilt University, The Vanderbilt Hustler celebrated its 40th year of independence from the university last fall. The Hustler rents space at Vanderbilt’s student center, but that is about as close as Vanderbilt Student Communications Inc. gets to affiliating itself with the school.
The company’s board comprises three faculty members and five students. Faculty members serve a three-year term, with the board inviting a replacement member each year. The board is the entity that selects, or removes, the editor of The Hustler.
Like most incorporated college papers, the board’s bylaws generally place editorial control of the newspaper under the purview of the editor in chief, said Chris Carroll, director of student media for Vanderbilt Student Communications Inc.
Carroll said removing an editor would take a serious violation.
“I’m pretty sure the bylaws are specific as to the reasons that they can do that,” Carroll said. “For the most part it’s limited to a failure to perform — if there is any kind of fiscal malfeasance, and things that are outside the scope of journalism behavior, misconduct.”
Most large private universities generally will encourage a free press on campus, even though they might not have an independent newspaper, Carroll said. Carroll has worked at three other schools, though Vanderbilt Student Communication is his first incorporated paper.
“The more national institutions … tend to operate more like a state school because they embrace a mindset of freedom of inquiry, they essentially have freedom of speech on campus,” Carroll said.
At many well-known universities, ousting an editor for controversial speech would appear to contradict the school’s position as a marketplace of ideas, Carroll said.
“It’s counter to the notion of liberal arts education,” Carroll said. “But it’s also horrible public relations.”
Carroll said editors are more likely to run into trouble at smaller, often religious, institutions where there are more rigid ideological standards.
Facing challenges like Rowan’s or McSwane’s is a trial by fire for anyone at the top spot of their publication. Balancing the media scrutiny and an often unhappy board — all while just trying to get the paper out on time — can be unnerving. But Rowan said even though at times he felt like he was in over his head, he came through the ordeal with valuable lessons learned.
“Pretty much any sort of controversy may seem like you are in this whirlwind and it’s never going to end, and your journalism career is in shambles,” Rowan said. “But I think anyone who handles themselves the best they can, and is willing to learn from the experience, can definitely come out of it with something that they can be proud of.”
reports, Winter 2007-08