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CMA issues 'letter of concern' about student media at W. Oregon
But a university panel and the copy editor whose discovery set off tensions say free-speech allegations were overblown
June 16, 2008

OREGON -- After a year beset with conflict -- ranging from an online security breach to the ousting of an adviser to allegations of First Amendment violations -- members of the journalism community at Western Oregon University are ready for a fresh start.

And College Media Advisers is ready to help.

The CMA issued a letter of concern last week for the health of student media at Western Oregon University and offered to work with administrators to create a better environment for student journalists.

The organization investigated Western Oregon University's relationship with student media following Susan Wickstrom's removal as the student newspaper's adviser. Wickstrom became entangled in controversy when members of the paper's staff discovered and reported about unsecured, sensitive student information on the school's Web site.

The CMA concluded that university officials' handling of the security investigation last summer indicated a lack of understanding of the basic philosophy and principles that guide student media advisers and a lack of knowledge about journalism ethics. University computer technicians searched the Journal newsroom after hours to search for copies of the data, and officials determined the staffer involved in discovering the security breach violated computer policies. One policy prohibits "accessing clearly confidential files that may be inadvertently publicly readable."

The CMA said the after-hours search compromised the newspaper's credibility because journalists cannot perform their public service function if subjected to searches by the people they are covering. It added that the resulting punishments seemed to blame staffers for informing the community about the breach.

"We're very interested in working with WOU in helping them to establish an environment that is healthier for student media," said Ken Rosenauer, president of CMA. "And some of what's involved with that are opportunities for helping educate administrators about appropriate student media operations and relations."

A secretary for the university's president, John Minahan, said he had no comment.

Because Wickstrom does not want her position back, CMA will focus on working with school officials to develop better policies regarding their engagements with student journalists, Rosenauer said. Since CMA developed its adviser advocacy program in 1998, it has censured seven schools for wrongly removing advisers and issued statements of concern for four institutions, including last week's letter to Western Oregon University.

"We want to extend an offer to the university president and the community that will hopefully ensure that when next they have some kind of issue involving student media, they handle it differently, more appropriately," he said.

First clash

Trouble began a year ago when student Blair Loving, newly hired to serve as a copy editor, inadvertently discovered a College of Education file containing student Social Security numbers and other sensitive data on a public university server. He downloaded the file and took it to the Journal's editor-elect Gerry Blakney. Blakney gave Wickstrom a copy of the data to temporarily store in her desk so that it could be used as a reference for future articles about the breach.

"What Susan Wickstrom did in many respects was she protected that information and protected that sensitive data," Rosenauer said. "Without clear guidelines to the contrary, indicating she should have done this or done that, she seemed to follow a common sense approach."

University officials said they dismissed Wickstrom because she mishandled confidential information by failing to immediately turn over all copies of the data.

But the local Society of Professional Journalists chapter praised her conduct. The organization honored Wickstrom last month with the First Freedom Award, which is given to those who demonstrate exemplary service to the First Amendment.

The society "felt strongly that for her courage and her integrity, Susan Wickstrom should be honored," Nick Budnick said in an e-mail to the Student Press Law Center. Budnick serves as the Sunshine Chair for the Society of Professional Journalists' Oregon and Southwest Washington chapter and gave the speech delivering her honor. "It seemed to us that she worked to foster and protect the practice of watchdog journalism -- and paid a price for it," Budnick wrote.

Wickstrom said the award was bittersweet gratification.

"It validated my compassion for the First Amendment and it made me realize that all the journalism community, in Oregon at least, believes that student presses should be independent, especially at a public campus," she said. "For it to end the way it did was deeply disappointing for me, because I learned so much there and I will always have the students in my heart."

Tensions rise

After Wickstrom left her post, an interim adviser took over. The copy editor was nearly expelled, and problems continued for Journal staffers -- beginning with a disagreement between them and administrators over a phrase below the newspaper's nameplate, reading "Student Owned and Operated, Reporting the Unabashed Truth." The vice president for student affairs objected and asked the adviser to change the phrase, arguing the Oregon State Board of Higher Education actually owns the newspaper. But staffers did not comply, and administrators dropped the issue.

In November, when the school conducted a "Fall Preview Day" for about 400 prospective students and their families, conflict again ensued.

Associate Provost David McDonald said he turned copies of the paper upside-down or mixed them in with other materials to prevent younger siblings of prospective students from seeing that week's front-page article, which featured a frontal, nude photo of the men's rugby team with their genitals obscured. But Blakney said McDonald removed Journal copies from distribution bins altogether. McDonald later apologized in a published letter to the editor, saying he failed to follow university policy in the matter.

High tensions between administrators and Journal staffers escalated when Blakney learned the interim adviser and other school officials were discussing changes to the student media bylaws without input from students or the Student Media Board. He issued a public plea for help.

"I am writing to you out of desperation," he said in a thousand-word, campuswide e-mail sent in January. "Our First Amendment guarantee of a free press is coming to an end."

Blakney went on to detail the Journal's confrontations with school officials over the school year, saying the administration had "completely taken control of the student press" by undermining the students' free-press rights.

University President Minahan followed with another campuswide e-mail, announcing he had appointed an ad-hoc committee to investigate Blakney's allegations.

"As I see it, no university can afford to be confused about fundamental issues of what is true and what is false when it comes to a fundamental right like free speech," Minahan wrote.

Allegations challenged

The Ad-hoc Committee on Free Press -- consisting of three faculty members and a local professional journalist -- issued its report on Blakney's four main allegations in April, concluding, "the accusations of First Amendment violations were made recklessly."

The security breach investigation was badly handled, but not illegal, the committee wrote. The committee additionally said the administrator who requested the nameplate change was legally justified in doing so; the committee also found administrators made no official changes to the Student Media Board bylaws, though they acted inappropriately by taking it upon themselves to develop improvements for what they deemed to be an ineffective Student Media Board.

"This was not a case of knights running to the rescue of the First Amendment, which is was we expected. But it wasn't," said Dick Hughes, the editorial page editor of The Statesman Journal who served on the committee. "I just expected that I'd be riding up to the fiery columns to stand up for the First Amendment and the students, writing editorials and the like, and that just wasn't the case."

The seven-page report largely concluded that administrators responded ineptly and heavy-handedly in multiple situations over the year, which illustrated the dysfunctional relationship between the newspaper and the administration with a poorly operating Student Media Board. The committee found the allegations of free-speech and free-press violations "unfounded" -- and Blair Loving, the copy editor involved in the first security breach incident, agreed.

He said like much of the Journal staff, he resigned before the end of the school year.

"A lot of people just got tired of it and didn't want to be involved in this little war Gerry [Blakney] was having with the administrators," Loving said, noting he felt as if Blakney was using the paper to anger those who had angered him.

Blakney did not return several voicemail and e-mail messages requesting comment over the past two weeks.

Loving issued his own campuswide e-mail in response to Blakney's initial plea, but his began: "I am writing you in clarification."

Loving then contradicted much of his co-worker's allegations, saying his understanding was that Wickstrom did not have her contract renewed because she was believed to have "misled" administrators during the security breach investigation. He also contested each of Blakney's allegations and expressed concern about the lack of oversight for the Journal.

Wickstrom, though declining to comment specifically in response to Loving's e-mail, said she believed she was protecting students' rights to gather information throughout the ordeal.

Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, said any time students feel a chilling effect on free speech, there is a First Amendment violation.

"It's difficult to see how students can be reckless in claiming that they don't feel safe exercising free speech," Goldstein said. "It really doesn't matter whether they don't feel safe because of malicious intent of a pattern of blunders by administrators. A school can't deflect a claim of a First Amendment violation by pointing out they were only incompetent, rather than evil."

Like the College of Media Advisers, Wickstrom and Loving both said they are concerned about the state of student media at Western Oregon University but are trying to move on.

Said Loving, "I'm just really ready to put this all behind me."

By Kelsey Beltramea, SPLC staff writer

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For More Information:
  • Changes to Western Oregon media board on hold after editor's public plea News Flash, 10/5/2007
  • School searches newsroom Winter 2007-08 Report
  • Student reporter who discovered university security breach punished but not expelled News Flash, 10/5/2007

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