Enrollment director bans student newspaper from career fair because of 'negative' story

MISSOURI -- Administrators at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin have launched an investigation to decide whether Derek Skaggs,* student enrollment director, violated the Chart, the student newspaper,staff's First Amendment rights after he banned the paper from a career fair for a story about declining enrollment.

John Messick, vice president of academic affairs,* is heading the investigation. He said Skaggs thought the article was inappropriate for a recruiting event and painted the university in a negative light.

The annual event took place Oct.8, on-campus, inviting area high school students to get information about local colleges and universities. MSSU provided representatives from various organizations and departments. Rhonda Clark, the student magazine adviser,* represented the communications department.

Alexandra Nicolas, editor in chief of the Chart, said Clark showed up carrying the newspapers, when Skaggs approached her and told her not to put the papers out because the content was inappropriate.

Clark told the Chart staff what happened, and Nicolas began to question why the information was "deemed inappropriate."

Nicolas contacted the Student Press Law Center and the Missouri Press Association for guidance.

Nicolas said the staff's First Amendment rights were violated when Skaggs decided the paper should not be distributed.

"Historically, we've never had any serious issues with the administration," said Nicolas. "This is why it's so surprising."

She said the censorship was not intentional, but rather a bad mistake by Skaggs.

Bruce Speck, MSSU president, assigned Messick to look into the situation. The communications department and student enrollment services are meeting with Messick to discuss the issue.

"Dr. Speck asked me to investigate what happened and to make sure nothing like this happens again," said Messick. "I have started that but haven't finished."

Messick said the college fair was in the auditorium on MSSU's campus for the purpose of providing information to prospective high school students. The Chart was an item the communication department chose to distribute as a sample of what students could be involved with in that department.

"We're wanting to recruit students, not scare them away," Messick said. "At this point the controversy has gotten out of hand."

Messick said the situation could have been handled by allowing Clark to substitute a different edition of the paper.

SPLC's legal advocate Adam Goldstein said although the substituted newspaper would have replaced the content disseminated to prospective students and pleased Skaggs, the students First Amendment rights still would have been violated.

"You can't avoid liability for censorship by showing how much speech you don't censor," he said.

News outlets in Missouri picked up the story after the Chart published an online editorial about the situation Oct. 8.

"We're kind of in front of the pad instead of behind," said Nicolas. "Our point is to make a statement that we hold the Fist Amendment sacred."

CORRECTION, 10/17: An earlier version of this article incorrectly named Derek Skaggs as Steve Skaggs, John Messick as vice president of student affairs, and Rhonda Clark as newspaper adviser. The SPLC regrets the errors. Return to story

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