The Student Press Law Center blog

Appeal challenges legality of Michigan regents' secretive "pre-meeting meetings"

People don’t attend university board meetings expecting a Six Flags thrill ride. But in Michigan, journalists began noticing that the meetings weren’t just dull. They seemed… staged. Scripted, even.  

It turns out that there’s an unwritten but powerfully honored tradition for the governing boards of Michigan universities to hold secret “pre-meeting meetings” at which all the real decisions get made. What the public gets to see is every bit as suspenseful and spontaneous as professional wrestling, only without the flying dropkicks. 

Nothing of substance gets discussed. Every vote is unanimous.

The Detroit newspapers finally had enough, and took Michigan’s famously secretive university system to court. But last month, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that state universities have essentially limitless discretion to decide which meetings qualify as "formal" meetings that constitutionally must be open to the public.

The court’s April 26 opinion relies entirely on a prior Michigan Supreme Court ruling in the context of university presidential searches.

In that case, Federated Publications, Inc. v. Board and Trustees of Michigan State University, the court held that Michigan’s (mercifully) unique constitutional structure gives the university system near-total autonomy from the legislature, so that the Open Meetings Act is more of a suggestion than a requirement.

The new case, Detroit Free Press v. University of Michigan Regents, extends the court’s 1999 ruling to all meetings of university regents, not just those involving presidential searches:

The Constitution permits defendant to hold informal meetings in private; defendant is only required to hold its formal meetings in public. We are simply not empowered to evaluate whether that is good policy or, for that matter, take any action on the basis of whether we might believe it to be.

Attorneys for the Detroit newspapers are petitioning Michigan’s Supreme Court to review the decision. It should – but regardless of the outcome of the case, Michigan needs to reexamine the privileged constitutional status afforded to universities, which has made them (even by university standards, which is saying something) assertively hostile to public accountability. Legislators have made several failed tries to reform the constitutional infirmity that allows Michigan universities to run amok, most recently in 2015, but lobbyists for the universities have, unsurprisingly, managed to bottle up each attempt.

Tagged: Detroit Free Press, Michigan Court of Appeals, Michigan Open Meetings Act, Michigan State University, open-meetings, recent-news

The ultimate student discount: No more paying for FOIA search-and-retrieval

An “educational” discount in fees for obtaining federal records applies to students as well as to their schools, a federal appeals court says.

The May 20 ruling is a significant advance for the access rights of student journalists, who’ll now be spared from paying for federal agencies to locate and retrieve documents, an expense that can run into the thousands.

To be clear, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in Sack v. Department of Defense applies only to the federal Freedom-of-Information Act, which entitles requesters to records from U.S. government agencies. It has no effect on the much more commonly used state FOIA laws that students are more likely to use for access to records of their own educational institutions.

When a requester asks a federal agency to produce documents, the government normally is allowed to charge hourly fees for the time spent finding and reviewing the documents. But the federal FOIA statute limits what agencies can charge “educational institutions” to just the actual cost of making copies.

University of Virginia graduate student Kathryn Sack, aggrieved by a $900 bill from the Pentagon to locate records needed for her doctoral research, insisted that the “educational institution” discount should apply to her. A U.S. district judge disagreed, but on Friday, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit ruled in Sack’s favor.

“If teachers can qualify for reduced fees, so can students,” Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh wrote in the court’s 3-0 opinion. “ Students who make FOIA requests to further their coursework or other school-sponsored activities are eligible for reduced fees under FOIA because students, like teachers, are part of an educational institution.” 

Students affiliated with journalistic publications were already eligible for the fee reduction, which extends to “a representative of the news media.” But a student doing a research paper for a journalism course unaffiliated with a recognized media outlet – or perhaps with nothing more than the aspiration of selling the work as a freelancer – fell into a zone of uncertainty that the appeals court has now helpfully clarified.

The ruling struck down as unreasonable a guideline disseminated by the federal Office of Management and Budget, which authorized agencies to treat requests from students as ineligible for the discounted educational rate: 

The Guideline says that a geology teacher seeking information about soil erosion to support her research is entitled to reduced fees. But why not the geology student seeking the same information for the same reason? Crickets.

Although students are far more likely to deal with state rather than federal agencies in the ordinary course of their reporting, it has become increasingly common for college journalists to need access to federal records because of the U.S. Department of Education’s stepped-up enforcement of the Title IX anti-discrimination statute. Forgiveness from search-and-retrieval fees will be welcome relief to those requesters. 

Regrettably, the court’s opinion introduced a needless hurdle by authorizing federal agencies to demand proof that the student’s work is needed “to further coursework or other school-sponsored activity,” such as a copy of a syllabus, a letter from a professor “or the like.”  It will bear careful watching whether agencies bent on dissuading requesters – or turning a profit from them – will respect the court’s admonishment: “We caution agencies against requiring hard-to-obtain verifications that will have the practical effect of deterring or turning away otherwise valid student FOIA requests.”

Tagged: D.C. Circuit, FOIA, Freedom of Information Act, public records, recent-news

Cleared for takeoff: FAA recognizes educational exemption permitting drone use by student media

In a significant easing of its restrictive policy toward journalistic use of unmanned aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration has issued new guidance clearing the way for students to freely use drones as part of educational activities.

The FAA memo, distributed May 4, broadens the definition of amateur "hobbyist" use -- which requires no federal permit -- to include the use of drones in educational settings when enrolled in an accredited educational institution.

To qualify as an approved educational use, the operator must be pursuing a relevant course of study -- the FAA specifically mentions television and film production as an "aviation related" course of study, so the definition is forgivingly broad -- and the operator must not be paid for the drone activity.

The new policy toward educational use of drones is a significant and welcome departure from the stringent approach announced by the FAA last year, which required all operators -- including educational institutions -- to obtain a certificate or waiver from the agency before operating a drone, even for a nonprofit journalistic purpose.

The FAA's reinterpretation largely tracks recommendations made by the Student Press Law Center in April 2015, when the agency first floated its drone regulations for public comment.

Although the FAA's reinterpretation significantly liberalizes the ability to use drones in student journalism, there are important limitations. The agency requires that hobbyists using unmanned aircraft remain within the operator's line of vision and stay a safe distance away from highly populated areas (such as, in an example specifically given by the FAA, over a stadium during a game).

Whether a faculty journalism adviser could participate in operating the drone remains uncertain, but the FAA guidelines counsel in favor of a cautious, hands-off approach. The agency said paid faculty may engage in minimal use of the aircraft if operating the drone is a secondary part of the curriculum, giving the example of a class in aircraft design in which testing the craft's airworthiness was an ancillary part of the course. It's unclear from that illustration whether a class focusing on drone journalism would qualify as a course in which operating the aircraft is "secondary." 

The limitation on receiving pay to qualify for the educational-use exemption may cause anxiety for some college media organizations where journalists are salaried, and how strictly the FAA will interpret the compensation requirement remains to be seen in practice.

Looking at how the FAA has interpreted its rules about flying planes for compensation in the past, the agency appears to take the common-sense view that, if the compensation is conditioned on making the flight and would not be paid but for making the flight, then that qualifies as flying "for compensation."

So it makes sense for newsrooms to take the same approach in evaluating whether their own drone use qualifies as an uncompensated educational use: would the student receive less compensation (or none) if a drone wasn't used? If so, then that's not an exempt hobbyist activity.

Of note, being classified as a recreational hobbyist user still does not relieve an educational operator from the requirement of registering the aircraft with the FAA if it weighs more than .55 pounds. 

Student media can, of course, still pursue licensure from the FAA if the publication wants to maintain a paid "drone journalist" position, but it will be reassuring to those using drones only occasionally that a less onerous flight path has now been cleared. 

Tagged: drones, FAA, recent-news

Pennsylvania court extends school's disciplinary reach into student's off-campus Facebook joke

A Pennsylvania student’s joking Facebook post attempting to make light of a school bomb threat landed him a 23-day suspension. Now, it may put him on a path to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In an opinion issued May 3, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III decided that the student’s post was unprotected by the First Amendment, because school administrators reasonably perceived the speech as substantially disruptive to school operations.

Jones’ ruling squarely tees up a question that the Third Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals avoided deciding in a 2011 case about the punishment of social-media speech: Do schools have authority over off-campus speech equivalent to their authority over in-school speech?

It’s a question the U.S. Supreme Court has so far dodged – including in this past term, refusing to accept the case of a Mississippi high-school student expelled for a profane rap video shared on YouTube – but that the justices inevitably will be forced to confront

The case began in October 2013, when a student at Pennsylvania’s Central York High School reported finding a handwritten note that said, “there is a bomb in the school.” The note prompted Superintendent Michael Snell to order the building evacuated and to cancel classes for the day.

(The school also claims to have seen a student’s Twitter post that “the bomb is supposedly in the stadium,” which school officials took as a renewal of the threat, but the existence of that tweet is disputed.)

After school was dismissed and students were sent home, a 15-year-old freshman referred to in court records as “R.L.” posted a tongue-in-cheek observation to his Facebook wall: “Plot twist, bomb isn’t found and goes off tomorrow.”

The post stayed up for only about four hours before R.L. voluntarily deleted it. But that was long enough for the post to come to the attention of local police, who notified the school administration.

The school did not cancel classes for the following day, bring in bomb-sniffing dogs or take any other additional precautions in response to R.L.’s post.

Nevertheless, Snell made a special trip that evening to an away football game to find R.L. and interview him about his intentions. Although there was no evidence any bomb plot actually existed – much less one involving R.L. – the superintendent issued him a 10-day disciplinary suspension on the spot. After a district-level hearing, the suspension was lengthened to 23 days – for a joke on Facebook, about a bomb that didn’t exist.

The student’s family challenged the lengthy suspension as a violation of the First Amendment. In the real world outside of school, they argued, a fleeting joke about violence would be regarded as constitutionally protected speech falling short of a “true threat.” 

But Jones decided that, even when speech is created on personal time outside of school, it can be punished if shown to pose a realistic prospect of substantially disrupting school functions.

That “substantial disruption” threshold was recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 1969 case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, involving punishment for in-school speech during instructional time. Speech disseminated from home outside of school time is qualitatively different. School lawyers have tried for years to convince federal judges to extend schools’ punitive authority so that all online speech is regarded as “in-school” speech, but the courts have hesitated to go that far.

Teeing up Tinker

The U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania is subject to precedent set by the federal Third Circuit, which is known for being especially protective of students’ First Amendment rights. The circuit’s judges have been the most hesitant of any in the country to join the growing trend of applying Tinker to legitimize school punishment of off-campus speech.

In a 2011 case heard by the entire (“en banc”) roster of 14 active judges, the court threw out a middle school’s suspension of a student who crudely mocked her principal in a profile created on the MySpace social networking site. But the judges could not agree on the larger question of whether the school’s disciplinary action should be measured by the Tinker standard or by some new standard more protective of speech.

Six judges wrote that Tinker should apply to all student speech regardless of where it is created and published, while five wrote that Tinker was insufficiently protective, failing to account for the distinction between speech in a classroom and speech on personal time to a non-school audience.

Acknowledging that his approach went beyond Third Circuit precedent, Judge Jones nonetheless wrote that he was "comfortable" applying the Tinker principle to R.L.'s case, because (1) the speech was about violence, a uniquely acute concern for school policymakers and (2) the subject matter of the speech made it especially likely to reach the school and cause an adverse reaction there. 

Johnson cited cases from the New York-based Second Circuit (Wisniewski v. Bd. of Ed. of Weedsport Central School Dist.) and the California-based Ninth Circuit (Wynar v. Douglas County Sch. Dist.) in which judges similarly granted schools broad latitude under Tinker to punish off-campus speech that portended violence against fellow students or school employees: "In light of the many school shootings that have tragically occurred over the past few decades, there can be no doubt that schools, parents, and students must take any suggestion of a bomb threat very seriously and with great cause for concern."

Suggesting that online speech may be even more disruptive to school than in-class speech because of the potential breadth of the audience, Jones wrote, “a bright line distinction between on-campus and off-campus speech in the context of Internet speech is both anachronistic and illogical.”

Lawyers for R.L. maintain that his speech, unlike the speech in those comparable cases, was clearly meant as gallows humor along the lines of "wouldn't it be ironic if the school evacuated the building today but the bomb actually went off tomorrow," which indicates no intent on the part of the speaker to commit any violence. An appeal is expected.

If the Third Circuit were to side with R.L.'s family, the case would be an especially opportune one for Supreme Court review, since the Court is most disposed to accept cases presenting a chance to reconcile a division among circuits. A ruling for R.L. would arguably place the Third Circuit in opposition, most directly, to the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit, which sided with school authorities last fall in the case of the student rapper (Bell v. Itawamba County Sch. Bd.) that the justices recently declined to hear.

School "inappropriate behavior" code struck down as overbroad

Because no other school rule was a fit for R.L.'s behavior, the school disciplined him under a regulation penalizing "[b]ehavior or items brought to school that are inappropriate, that may cause a disruption to the school environment."

The judge almost certainly should have struck down the discipline on due process grounds, since a regulation about in-school behavior gave R.L. no adequate warningthat social-media speech would be considered punishable. But Jones declined to do so, finding that R.L. should have been on notice that school prohibitions against disruptive behavior extended into his off-campus life.

The court did, however, hand the family a victory in invalidating the regulation as facially overbroad, because it applies to behavior that "may" cause disruption even with no reasonable likelihood that such a disruption was foreseeable.

This is a significant point that throws many hundreds of school disciplinary codes into question. It is alarmingly commonplace for schools to claim the authority to punish "inappropriate" speech -- no matter where it occurs -- even though no court has ever said that speech loses its constitutional protection simply because an authority figure subjectively deems it "inappropriate."

Striking down the regulation did not end up helping R.L., however, since the judge found that his speech was within a constitutionally permissible application of the rule -- even if the rule itself invited impermissibly broad misapplications to other speakers.

The case is R.L. v. Central York School District., No. 1:14-cv-00450.

Tagged: facebook, First Amendment, First Amendment, first-amendment, off-campus speech, recent-news, social media, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District

Senate committee tentatively okays New Voices press freedom act

            The Senate Judiciary Committee voted tentatively Tuesday to approve a bill giving students enhanced legal protection against school censorship, but the legislation must return to the committee next week where changes may be made.

            The measure passed on a 7-0 vote after its proponents assured they committee they’d work with lobbyists for school principals and superintendents toward reaching a compromise.

            House Bill 5902 has already passed the House unanimously. It would blunt the impact of the Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling in Hazelwood School District v. Kulhmeier that gave schools broad censorship authority over journalistic publications produced as part of school curriculum.

            The bill, sponsored by Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, is being handled in the Senate by Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Skokie.

            During Tuesday’s hearing, Biss ran into skeptical questioning particularly from Republican senators, who questioned why the bill was needed and whether it would interfere with schools’ ability to manage.

            Sen. Chris Nybo, R-Lombard, pointed sympathetically to the recent case of an Illinois principal who threatened to cancel the journalism program and shutter the newspaper after students published an article critical of a change in the starting time of the school day. “In my mind,” Nybo said, “they’re students first and journalists second.”

            The committee chairman, Sen. Kwame Raoul, D-Chicago, said he was troubled by the use of vague terms such as “obscene” to characterize the types of journalistic speech that schools would retain the authority to prevent

            Ultimately, the committee members – fatigued after a day-long Senate floor debate over a contentious school funding issue – agreed to pass the bill, but asked Biss to entertain amendments to address the concerns they’d raised. Biss said he plans to bring the measure back next week.

            The League of Women Voters of Illinois, the Illinois Library Association, the ACLU of Illinois and many other educational and civil-rights organizations filed statements with the committee supporting the bill

            Last month, Maryland became the ninth state to enact a statute giving heightened legal protection to student journalists, following the lead of North Dakota, which spawned the nationwide New Voices movement that has since spread to at least 19 other states.

Tagged: First Amendment, First Amendment, first-amendment, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, Illinois legislature, new voices, recent-news, Sen. Daniel Biss

Under cloud of suspicion, Wyoming college proposes eliminating journalism program

Facing accusations of retaliation against the student newspaper's adviser, Northwest College administrators now are asking the Wyoming college's board to eliminate the journalism courses that support production of the newspaper.

The board of trustees of Northwest is scheduled to meet Monday to consider a series of budget reductions proposed by President Stefani Hicswa, including cutting journalism and two other academic programs starting in the fall of 2016.

Northwest is running a budget shortfall blamed partly on a decline in the state's fossil-fuel-dependent economy; community colleges in Wyoming receive revenue from property taxes, and depressed property valuations diminish tax receipts. The college has been looking at belt-tightening measures including inducing senior employees to take early retirement.

Hicswa says the elimination of three targeted programs -- journalism, film/radio/TV and farrier business management -- will help shave about 10 percent from the college's $22.6 million annual operating expenses.

The proposal comes at a time of renewed friction between college administrators and the award-winning student newspaper, The Northwest Trail. The newspaper has a history of aggressive coverage of campus news events, which in 2010 led to the retaliatory discharge of adviser Ron Feemster under Hicswa's predecessor. The newspaper was recognized with the national College Press Freedom Award for continuing to publish even after Feemster's firing.

Last month, an attorney for current adviser Rob Breeding told the college that Breeding was singled out for retaliatory treatment when his eligibility for tenure was delayed a year and he was told to complete additional graduate coursework in journalism despite substantial prior experience as a journalist and instructor.

According to the letter, Breeding's relationship with the college soured after articles in the Northwest Trail that campus administrators criticized, including one questioning how the college reacted to on-the-job drinking by resident assistants. The college's lawyer has denied the charge.

A college spokesman told Inside Higher Ed that the college intends for the Northwest Trail to continue operating even without a journalism program, but that no decision has been made about an adviser. (Presumably, Breeding will not be retained if there are no journalism courses for him to teach, though the college has not publicly identified positions it envisions cutting.)

On Friday, the Student Press Law Center sent a letter of protest to the trustees encouraging them to refrain from acting on Hicswa's budget proposal until its motives could be carefully studied. The letter explained that any act by a public institution, direct or indirect, motivated to punish or deter lawful student speech is presumptively unconstitutional and could expose the college to liability. 

The letter stated in part: "[I]t is virtually impossible to sustain a high-quality student newspaper at a two-year college as a purely extracurricular activity in which participants neither receive any significant pay nor academic credit. There can be no mistaking that the elimination of journalism courses will end the production of anything approaching the reliably high-quality journalism for which the community depends on the Northwest Trail."

Tagged: Northwest College, Rob Breeding

Longtime SPLC attorney Hiestand named distinguished journalism graduate at Marquette

Marquette University’s J. William and Mary Diederich College of Communication and the Marquette University Alumni Association honored longtime Student Press Law Center attorney Michael C. Hiestand on Saturday as the 2016 recipient of their college's By-Line Award. The award is presented each year to an alumnus who has attained distinction and has made exceptional achievements in journalism and related fields.

Hiestand, who graduated from Marquette University in 1987 with a degree in journalism and later from Cornell Law School, has gained renown for his committed defense of the First Amendment and the rights of student journalists. In more than two decades on the staff of the SPLC, Hiestand provided legal assistance to nearly 15,000 student journalists and advisers.

During the 2013-14 academic year, Hiestand took his dedication to student press rights on the road by organizing  the Tinker Tour, a nationwide First Amendment awareness campaign bringing the landmark student-speech case, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District , to a new generation of young journalists. Accompanied by Mary Beth Tinker, one of the original Tinker plaintiffs, he visited 31 states and the District of Columbia to discuss the importance of free speech and free press.

“My work with student media has truly been my dream job,” he said about his lifetime of work. “I believe -- I know -- good journalists can and do change the world for the better. That’s why I went to journalism school. The First Amendment, among other things, protects journalists. That’s why I went to law school.”

Hiestand is the co-author of the SPLC's reference book, Law of the Student Press, and was the primary author of "Covering Campus Crime: A Handbook for Journalists," now in its fifth edition. He also wrote the long-running column, “It’s The Law,” covering student media law, published by the National Scholastic Press Association and the Associated Collegiate Press. In 2009, the National Scholastic Press Association awarded him its Pioneer Award, its highest honor for journalism educators. In 2015, he and Tinker were presented with the Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award in recognition of their free-speech awareness efforts.

Hiestand has been one of the leading proponents of a student press-rights statute to protect the independence of student journalists and journalism advisers in his home state of W

Tagged: First Amendment, Marquette University, Mike Hiestand, recent-news, Tinker Tour

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