Award recognizes Fairmont State college journalists for fighting censorship, retaliation





FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
November 1, 2015   
Contact: Frank LoMonte, Executive Director
director@splc.org or 202-872-1704

Fairmont State journalists saluted for courage in confronting censorship with College Press Freedom Award

Editor Jacob Buckland and the staff of The Columns at West Virginia’s Fairmont State University are the winners of the 2015 College Press Freedom Award for standing up against institutional censorship and retaliation – including the removal of their faculty adviser – after their reporting brought to light health problems associated with mold in campus residence halls.

The award was announced at the National College Media Convention in Austin, attended by some 1,800 college journalism students and advisers.

“The work of Jacob Buckland and his staff at The Columns is exactly the type of exemplary public-service journalism for which student journalists should be thanked and rewarded. They helped focus attention on a problem of pressing public concern in the best tradition of investigative reporting,” said attorney Frank D. LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center. “Their determination to continuing bringing the public essential news – even after their newspaper program was decimated by Fairmont State’s retaliation – is richly deserving of the College Press Freedom Award.”

Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication sponsors the award in honor of “The Reveille Seven,” a group of determined student newspaper editors who stood up against Louisiana’s political power structure in publishing a column critical of then-U.S. Sen. Huey Long, resulting in their expulsion from LSU, an action for which the college has since apologized. The award is co-sponsored by the Associated Collegiate Press, one of the organizers of the national media convention.

During April and May of 2015, The Columns carried a series of front-page stories about potentially unhealthy levels of toxic mold in campus dormitories. Reporters for the newspaper obtained a commercial testing kit and, with verification from outside experts, detected the presence of toxic “black mold” in at least one residence hall. Their findings validated the experience of a student athlete, Breanna Blot, who told the newspaper that her doctor advised moving out of campus housing after she experienced a debilitating respiratory illness linked to mold exposure.

In a front-page column accompanying the latter story, the editors of The Columns described the hostile environment on campus for student journalists, which included pressure from their department chair to pre-approve news stories and repeated refusals even to provide editors with a copy of their own newspaper’s budget.

Shortly thereafter, faculty adviser Michael Kelley, an experienced professional journalist who had been hired in 2014-15 under the understanding of a three-year term appointment, was told by the provost without explanation that his contract would not be renewed. The two advisers immediately preceding Kelley – including a former national president of the Society of Professional Journalists, Kevin Smith – both say they, like Kelley, faced continuing pressure to curb students’ investigative reporting and publish only articles flattering to the university.

This fall, the three returning editors of The Columns – Buckland, Tyler Wilson and Britany Mullins – met with Fairmont State President Maria Rose and Provost Christina Lavorata, who said they were unlikely to be rehired as editors because the newspaper’s tone was unacceptably controversial and negative. The three then decided to leave the paper rather than work under a regime of censorship and are launching an independent online news outlet, The Broken Column, as an alternative.

"I am honored to receive this award on the behalf of the staff at The Columns ,” Buckland said. “It is important as students and journalists to stand up for the rights guaranteed to us by the Constitution. The university needs to be held accountable for infringing on those rights and the students deserve to know the truth. I look forward to continuing real, investigative journalism as part of The Broken Column."

LoMonte said the award stands as a statement on behalf of the entire college media community that the hostility toward journalism at Fairmont State must end: “This award is a wake-up call to the trustees of Fairmont State that something is deeply wrong in the culture of their institution beginning at the highest rungs of leadership. When students and employees can’t safely speak out about matters of public health and safety without punishment, the campus becomes a place of fear, secrecy and distrust where corruption thrives.”

Since 1974, the Student Press Law Center has been devoted to educating high school and college journalists about the rights and responsibilities embodied in the First Amendment, and supporting the student news media in covering important issues free from censorship. An archive of previous winners of the SPLC’s college and high-school journalism awards is online at: http://www.splc.org/page/high-school-and-college-press-freedom-awards.

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