The Student Press Law Center blog

Adviser questions demands for additional coursework, but college attorney insists there's no retaliation

A Wyoming college attorney denies that the institution unfairly treated a journalism instructor and the student newspaper due to the students’ coverage of campus events.

In a letter to the attorney of Rob Breeding, a journalism instructor at Northwest College, the college’s attorney wrote that the “accusation that the College is making decisions about Breeding's employment based on the content of articles published in the Northwest Trail is inaccurate and false.”

Attorney Tracy Copenhaver's April 21 letter is in response to a previous letter sent by Patrick Hacker, an attorney for the Wyoming Education Association, that outlined a number of First Amendment concerns related to how the college has treated Breeding, who advises the Northwest Trail, the student-run newspaper on campus. Breeding said the university delayed his tenure track for one year and demanded that he take 18 hours of postgraduate journalism courses, even though he already holds a masters' degree and has more than 20 years' experience as a journalist and adviser.

“Not only are there concerns about improper First Amendment retaliation against Mr. Breeding as the journalism instructor/newspaper advisor, but there are now also concerns that the newspaper and the entire journalism department may also be a target of retaliation by administration,” Hacker wrote in the letter.

The concerns come after the newspaper published stories that irked college administrators, including an article on the removal of five resident assistants accused of drinking on the job.

The Higher Learning Commission, the school’s accrediting agency, recently imposed more demanding standards for the graduate-level coursework that instructors should have. But Breeding said the qualifications from the commissions are guidelines, not requirements. He also said the commission was specific in saying that colleges should not impose these qualification standards on instructors who are in good standing.

“I am complying with what they said I have to do, while also challenging it,” Breeding said Friday, mentioning that he is in the process of signing up for classes for an online graduate journalism program at the University of Missouri.

He said college made clear that they might not renew his contract unless he completes 18 hours of postgraduate journalism courses. But Breeding said a full course load in a graduate program next year would take up time he could be advising his students at the newspaper. And this semester, he said he has already been less available to his students in dealing with the administration.

As for the delay in Breeding’s tenure track status, the college’s attorney said the delay would allow him to complete the qualifications outlined by the accrediting agency.

“The idea of postponing that was to give Rob adequate time to acquire in a very reasonable time line the necessary course work to meet the HLC and [college] requirements,” Copenhaver stated in the letter.

Northwest College was the scene of a press-freedom squabble in 2010 when the Trail's adviser, Ron Feemster, was removed after unfavorable coverage of college news, including questionable sports recruiting practices and inequities in faculty and administrator pay. 

Tagged: College Media Advisers, First Amendment, First Amendment, first-amendment, Northwest College, Northwest Trail, recent-news

Back on the Trail: Retaliation questions resurface at Northwest College after adviser's job is imperiled

New qualification standards have one Wyoming journalism instructor wondering if he and the student newspaper are receiving unfair treatment from administrators in response to the students’ coverage of the campus.

An attorney for the Wyoming Education Association recently sent a letter to Northwest College in Wyoming, outlining a number of First Amendment concerns over the treatment of journalism instructor Rob Breeding and the campus newspaper, the Northwest Trail.

“Not only are there concerns about improper First Amendment retaliation against Mr. Breeding as the journalism instructor/newspaper advisor, but there are now also concerns that the newspaper and the entire journalism department may also be a target of retaliation by administration,” WEA Attorney Patrick Hacker wrote in the letter.

According to a report in the Powell Tribune, Breeding recently found out his tenure track status would be delayed a year, and he will have to take 18 hours of postgraduate journalism courses.

In the letter to Northwest, Hacker said the obstacles to Breeding remaining employed at the college appeared to get more demanding after the newspaper published articles that irked the college's administration, including one about a gun found on campus and another about the removal of five resident assistants accused of drinking on the job.

Along with the letter, Hacker sent a public-records request to find out more about discussions related to future budget cuts at the college. Hacker said he is inquiring into whether administrators are targeting the Northwest Trail or the journalism program for elimination because of animosity.

Hacker said the purpose of the letter was to communicate the concern that the paper’s coverage might play a role in whether to cut the program.

“Retaliation for student newspaper reporting strikes at the heart of free speech and academic freedom,” Hacker wrote in the letter. “Of all places in our society, a college should respect and encourage students’ rights to report and comment on matters of importance to them.”

This isn’t the first time Northwest College has been called out for its treatment of the journalism program. The college fired Ron Feemster, who advised the newspaper and taught print journalism classes, in 2010 after a tense relationship with campus administrators, who recoiled at unflattering coverage in the newspaper.

Feemster published a first-person account of his time at Northwest College in Inside Higher Ed, where he outlined the struggles he faced as he advised the newspaper.

“I would lose my job in the fight to publish a newspaper that covered the real news on campus, but I would gain something greater,” Feemster wrote in the article. “In two years, I experienced again how journalism energizes young people, and how young people trying to write the truth can change their community.”

The student editors at Northwest were recognized with the College Press Freedom Award for continuing their aggressive coverage in spite of their adviser's removal.

Tagged: College Media Advisers, First Amendment retaliation, Northwest College, Northwest Trail, recent-news, Rob Breeding

Free speech advocates urge the University of Wisconsin-Superior to drop its investigation into student newspaper’s April Fools’ edition

WISCONSIN — As the the investigation into the University of Wisconsin-Superior Promethean newspaper proceeds, free speech advocates are standing behind the student newspaper's use of satire.

For its annual April Fools’ edition, the Promethean staff decided to push the boundaries of modern-day stereotypes. The issue, renamed the Pessimist, was rampant with fabricated stories and vulgarities, and drew backlash from students and community members for its satire.

The issue included fake stories about the university restarting a football program, past UWS student Arnold Schwarzenegger returning to teach a class, and references to minority stereotypes. What provoked an adverse response from some upset readers were stories involving the school’s large amount of international students -- referred to as “outsourcing” -- the lack of Jewish students on campus, and strategies for picking up women.

On April 6, Debbie Cheslock, a UWS graduate student and student program manager at the Gender Equity Resource Center, filed a formal grievance against the newspaper for its “inadequate notice of satire” and “demeaning expressive behavior” — which prompted a supportive response from the university critical of the Promethean.

The university announced in a statement on April 14 — which was later deleted from Facebook — that the Dean of Students’ Office is “actively investigating the grievance and working with UW System Legal to ensure this issue is properly and adequately addressed.”

“We strongly condemn the offensive nature of [the April Fools’ Day edition] of the student newspaper and encourage those responsible to apologize and take the necessary steps to ensure something like this never happens again,” the statement read. “It was offensive to many and contradictory to what we, as a university, are proud to stand for. It was bad student journalism done in poor taste!”

Marcus White, editor-in-chief of the Promethean, said the university has hardly communicated with him about the investigation, other than email correspondence. He said that the newspaper staff will not apologize for, or retract, its satirical work.

The Promethean editorial board issued a statement about the investigation today, saying that it continues to stand by its April Fools’ edition as well as exercising its free press rights.

“To be inclusive means to respect the opinion and speech of others, regardless of its nature or source,” the statement read. “This is a liberal arts university, not a safe zone for people to have their ideas censored because others disagree with them. Some opinions offend us, others make us cringe, but in an inclusive environment these opinions are still respected.”

On April 15, UWS Assistant Director of Student Involvement Allison Garver sent an email to White informing him that a formal grievance had been filed with the Dean of Students’ office regarding the April Fools’ edition and that the office would be conducting an investigation. Garver and White arranged to have an informal meeting on Thursday to discuss “the concern and to gather information” as well as review the process for the incident.

White said after seeking legal guidance, he cancelled the meeting.

The university’s reaction drew criticism from free speech advocates who accused UWS of disregarding its constitutional duties as a public institution.

In a letter, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education expressed its deep concern over the university’s investigation into the Promethean.

“Cheslock is free as a student to file such a grievance and issue these criticisms. However any formal investigation conducted by UWS into the grievance’s allegations, and by extension the Promethean’s content, violates the publication’s constitutional rights,” the letter read. “Satire, of course, may be offensive and is often intended to offend. The principle of freedom of speech does not exist to protect only non-controversial speech; indeed, it exists precisely to protect speech that some members of a community may find controversial or offensive.” 

The Student Press Law Center has contacted UWS administrators on the student journalists’ behalf to inform them that any disciplinary investigation into the newspaper would violate press freedom

Tagged: April Fools' Day, college media, First Amendment, First Amendment, first-amendment, recent-news, university-of-wisconsin-superior

VIDEO: 'Secret police' are un-American

In most states, private university police departments are not required to disclose police reports under the public records law — despite having the power to arrest and use force.

The Student Press Law Center has an ongoing campaign to open police records at private universities:  Stop Secret Police. Last month, the SPLC spoke out against a bill that passed through the Indiana legislature that would have shielded private campus police department records from being made public. Indiana Gov. Mike Pence vetoed the legislation.

Now, a court case on this issue is heading to the Indiana Supreme Court — ESPN has sued the University of Notre Dame Security Police Department for incident reports concerning student athletes. The Indiana Court of Appeals ruled that private campus police records should be subject to the state's public records law, but Notre Dame is appealing the ruling to the Indiana Supreme Court. 

The SPLC has made a video dramatizing what happens when university police are not held accountable by the public through public records. As the SPLC's executive director Frank LoMonte wrote in his open letter to Indiana's governor, "'Secret police' belong in Russia, China and North Korea. They have no place in South Bend."

Tagged: private university police, recent-news

College students mostly support free speech with some restrictions, survey finds

In principle, the majority of college students are supportive of free speech on campus and press freedom rights — but many believe it is sometimes appropriate to impose significant restrictions, a new survey released today found.

Almost 80 percent of college students believe that universities should create an open learning environment that exposes students to all types of speech and viewpoints, including some that are biased or offensive. But two-thirds of students say colleges should be allowed to have policies that restrict slurs and offensive language, as well as costumes that stereotype racial or ethnic groups. Black students, women and Democrats are especially likely to support these restrictions.

The majority of students — 70 percent — believe that students should not be able to prevent the press from covering protests on campus, but nearly half of students said there are legitimate reasons to do so: if protesters believe reporters will be biased, if the people at the protest say they have a right to be left alone and if the protesters want to tell their own story on the internet or through social media. A majority of black and female students found each of those reasons to be compelling enough to restrict press access.

These and other findings about free expression on campus were included in the Gallup survey, sponsored by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute. The study included 3,072 U.S. full-time college students, aged 18 to 24, and 2,031 U.S. adults, aged 18 and older.

College students are much more confident than U.S. adults about the security of First Amendment rights, the survey found — particularly freedom of the press, which 81 percent of students believe is secure versus 64 percent of adults, and freedom of speech, which 73 percent of students feel is secure versus 56 percent of adults. Forty percent of adults surveyed say the ability to exercise free speech is weaker today than it was 20 years ago.

The survey is released at a time when some feel like free speech on college campuses is under attack, between free speech zones and trigger warnings. And college students often seem to have a deep distrust of the press, particularly the student press. Student journalists have been denied access to campus protests, with some activists saying that protests are “safe spaces” for students and others saying a predominately-white press might not understand their perspectives.

According to the survey, 59 percent of college students have little or no trust in the press to report the news accurately and fairly. And only half of students first get their news from traditional news organizations — 26 percent would instead look on social media and 20 percent first go to digital sources like BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post.

At least seven in 10 college students whose campus has a student publication see it as having at least a somewhat important role in keeping students up to date on what is happening on campus, keeping students informed about issues that affect them and creating a place for the open exchange of ideas. Most of those students — 44 percent — think the most important role of the student media is keeping students up to date. About half of that — 24 percent — believe student media plays a key role in facilitating an open exchange of ideas.

Black and female students were more likely to say student media is very important for creating a forum for an open exchange of ideas and very important for keeping students up-to-date on events happening on campus.

Ninety percent of college students say a free press is more or just as important to democracy today than it was 20 years ago.

Full survey results can be found here.

Tagged: First Amendment, First Amendment, first-amendment, free speech on campus, recent-news

Kentucky high school hold a mock trial for the student paper punished for refusing to print the word 'Redskins'

Corrected, 3/24, 4 pm. The Playwickian is a student paper in Pennsylvania, not Virginia. 

Kentucky high school journalists are staging a mock trial for the real case of a Pennsylvania school district that punished a student newspaper for refusing to print the word “Redskin.”

In 2013, student editors of the Playwickian newspaper at Neshaminy High School decided to ban the school’s mascot name, the Redskins, from publication. The term is a racial slur towards Native Americans, the editors said.

School officials demanded the staff include a letter to the editor that contained the school mascot name in the June 2014 issue — or not print the issue at all. Editors refused to include the letter but still sent the issue to print, resulting in school authorities confiscating half of the copies of distributed to students, deducting $1,200 from the newspaper’s activities fund, suspending adviser Tara Huber without pay for two days and revoking Gilliam McGoldrick’s title of editor-in-chief for one month.

School administrators then reworked the district’s publications policy, saying that editors must submit their paper to the principal 10 days in advance of publication for prior review, instead of the former three-day requirement. The policy also said student editors were not allowed to bar the word Redskins from the opinion pages, and the newspaper’s adviser has the power to select and edit the letters to the editor. The policy granted student journalists the right to remove the word Redskins in the news sections, subject to the principal’s approval. It also says that administrators can censor any content if they have “any reasonable reason.”

James Miller’s journalism classes at duPont Manual Magnet High School in Louisville, Kentucky split into sides representing the student journalists and the school district, using an archive of documents about the case.

When the mock trial discussion turned to the school board’s publication policy, Playwickian adviser Tara Huber tweeted back that “Policy 600 violates students rights” and “conflicts with PA code.” Pennsylvania code guarantees students the right to free expression, including in school-funded newspapers. The code stipulates that school officials may not censor material simply because it is critical of the school or administration.

The attorneys in the mock trial also called "philosophy experts" to the stand.

Two ninth grade journalism classes are conducting separate sections of the mock trial, Miller said on Twitter. The trials will start each day at 9:15 EST and last until about 10:45 EST for the next several days — Miller will be livetweeting with the hashtags #mcgvmcg1 and #mcgvmcg2.

For journalism advisers who are considering staging a mock trial of their own, the SPLC has compiled a list of case files of some of our most extreme censorship cases in recent years (including one at Miller’s own high school, where students launched an independent newspaper after being forbidden from discussing homosexuality in a school-sponsored publication).

Tagged: news, playwickian, recent-news

Sunshine Week 2016: Shining a light on private campus police departments

Private universities’ police departments represent a hole in public-records access. In all but six states, private campus police forces are not required to disclose police reports under the public records law — despite having the power to arrest and use force.

In honor of Sunshine Week 2016, a week devoted to open government and public access, the SPLC launched a new campaign to open police records at private universities: Stop Secret Police.

This week was particularly timely, as the Indiana Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday that the University of Notre Dame’s police department is a public agency subject to the state public records law. The appellate court ordered the trial court to evaluate ESPN’s records requests to determine which are now subject to disclosure — but the records may never see the light of day, thanks to a piece of legislation that is headed towards the governor’s desk. Here’s our explainer of the situation in Indiana.

In an open letter urging Indiana’s governor to veto the bill, SPLC Executive Director Frank LoMonte wrote that the bill would codify “the extremist position of private universities that the way they use their governmental policing authority is none of the public’s business.” Secret police, he concluded, belong in North Korea — not South Bend, Indiana. Read the letter here.

The SPLC also conducted a public-records audit of 30 private universities across the country. Only three of the colleges provided police reports upon request. Ten never even responded to the public records requests. Here’s the results of the audit, and an in-depth look at the national climate of private campus law enforcement.

If you have requested records from a private university’s police department, share the response with us by using the hashtag #StopSecretPolice or by emailing us. We’ll compile instances of secretive police — and the steps in certain states to change the public records law — on our website, Stop Secret Police.

Tagged: private university police, recent-news, Sunshine Week

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp speaks on the Senate floor in support of student free speech

Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota took to the U.S. Senate floor Thursday to voice support for students’ free speech rights and to applaud her home state’s groundbreaking passage of New Voices legislation.

Last April, North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple signed into law the John Wall New Voices Act that protects students’ right to free speech and of the press, regardless of whether the school pays for the publication or it is produced as part of a class. The state legislature had unanimously passed the law, which went into effect in August.

The law protects both high school and college student journalists and bolsters free speech rights for students in response to the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court case Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier. In the case, the Court decided that unless a newspaper is identified as a public forum, school administrators can censor student media if they have “legitimate pedagogical concerns.”

Heitkamp, who is the mother of a former high school columnist, spoke about the “dire” effects of the Hazelwood decision in schools, which she said has been widely condemned by professional journalism organizations.

“Students report regularly that they’ve been prevented from discussing matters of public importance in the pages of student media, or perhaps worse, they’ve restrained themselves from even attempting to address an issue of political or social concern for fear of adverse consequences,” she said. “That is not an environment that values and empowers student voices and it’s not a climate that is conducive to effective and learning civic participation. We can and must do better.”

The passage of the legislation has inspired the national New Voices movement. About 20 states have a campaign to pass similar legislation, with eight bills introduced so far.

“I look forward to taking on the difficult task of talking about what we can do nationally to advance this,” Heitkamp said. “But I mainly came here to applaud the great state of North Dakota for recognizing the importance of students’ First Amendment rights, and encourage all the members in this chamber to examine what happens at home with students’ First Amendment rights, to provide leadership to promote those rights in their state and to potentially look at how we can reverse the Hazelwood decision so that we can grow a more confident, a more educated and a more diverse population for our future.”

Watch Heitkamp’s full remarks below.

Tagged: heidi heitkamp, new voices, North Dakota, recent-news

Court strikes down George Mason’s student code prohibiting ‘distressing’ speech

A federal district court has struck down a student conduct policy that allows a Virginia university to punish students for speech that causes distress or emotional discomfort.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia ruled against a George Mason University speech code, arguing the policy was overbroad and would allow the university to punish students for speech that is offensive or disagreeable.

Under student conduct policy 2013.9.B, which has now been changed, the university identified a true threat, in part, as communicating “in a manner likely to cause causes [sic] injury, distress, or emotional or physical discomfort.”

A former George Mason student filed a lawsuit after he was expelled from the university in December 2014 for violating two student conduct regulations. In particular, the university found the unnamed former student to be in violation of policies relating to threats and sexual misconduct.

The suit claims the university deprived “John Doe” of his rights without due process and violated his free speech rights. In the opinion, authored by U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis III, the court granted summary judgment to the student in both claims.

School officials found John Doe violated a student policy against threats when he sent a text message to his former girlfriend saying he would buy a gun and shoot himself in the chest if she did not respond, according to the opinion.

In the opinion, released last week, Ellis wrote that although the first part of policy 2013.9 prohibits true threats — which are not protected by the First Amendment — the second part of the policy could block speech that is merely disagreeable or offensive, and thus constitutionally protected. That part of the policy does not include a “reasonable person” limitation — meaning a reasonable person must find the speech threatening — and uses vague terms such as “distress” and emotional discomfort to describe speech that could be prohibited.

Ellis wrote that the school’s policy is so broad that it would allow the university to punish a student for racist comments found offensive by another student. Brent Ericson, an assistant dean of students and director of the Office of Student Conduct, had said in a deposition that a student who says that African-Americans should not be allowed to enroll at the university could be punished under the code if an African-American student is distressed by the comments.

“Yet, it is well established that racist speech, even on a university campus, is constitutionally protected,” Ellis wrote.

Ellis cites the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals case Iota XI Chapter Of Sigma Chi Fraternity v. George Mason University, in which the appeals court ruled that while a university has an interest in providing “an educational environment free of discrimination and racism,” they should do so without silencing viewpoint-based speech.

In the landmark 1969 U.S. Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, the Court ruled that student speech must “materially and substantially interfere” with a school’s educational operation if it is to be censored.

George Mason’s defense argued that the student conduct policy was justified under the Tinker standard.

But the Tinker case applied to K-12 schools and Ellis wrote that there are “many differences” betweens colleges and public secondary schools and elementary schools.

“In short, controversial and sometimes offensive ideas and viewpoints are central to the educational mission of universities,” Ellis wrote, summarizing the Fourth Circuit case Kim v. Coppin State College. “It follows that university students cannot thrive without a certain thickness of skin that allows them to engage with expressions that might cause ‘distress’ or ‘discomfort,’ which is precisely the type of speech that Code 2013.9B seeks to suppress.”

The opinion states that a similar policy was already deemed unconstitutional in McCauley v. University of the Virgin Islands, a case decided by the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in 2010. In the case, the Third Circuit found the university’s speech code, which restricts speech that may “frighten, demean, degrade, or disgrace,” was overbroad and covered much more speech than necessary to cause a threat.

Similar to University of the Virgin Islands’ policy, George Mason’s policy uses subjective terms and covers all speech, Ellis wrote — something that would cause students to speak less for fear of violating the policy. The plaintiff’s text message, Ellis wrote, was not classified as a true threat because it did not aim to harm somebody else or to cause a panic.

School administrators also argued the threat of suicide required the university to take action due to its responsibility to the safety and well-being of students. However, the judge found that the discipline was based on the distress caused to the recipient of the message, not on Doe’s intent to harm himself.

The judge directed the university and John Doe to find a “proper remedy” to resolve the case.

Tagged: George Mason University, recent-news, speech codes