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Newspaper editor, former adviser challenge censorship, termination with lawsuit

February 11, 2009

ILLINOIS -- An Illinois college newspaper editor and his paper's former adviser have filed suit against members of the college administration in Illinois district court, demanding the adviser's reinstatement and an end to threats of censorship and budget cuts.

George Providence II, Chicago State University sophomore and editor of the Tempo, and former adviser Gerian Steven Moore allege that since the paper's reestablishment in March 2008, university officials have pressured Moore to censor Tempo's content and have chastised Providence for publishing pieces critical of CSU.

Tensions came to a head last fall following a controversial Tempo story regarding potential misuse of university funds. A clash between the paper and Patricia Arnold, executive director of university relations at CSU, ensued.

"If it had somehow gotten out that the money was obtained in violation of university regulations, it would have been embarrassing for the university," Moore said. "I informed [Arnold] that if they chose to pursue that story, there was nothing I could do. They had the right to explore where the funding came from. Not long after that, I was told that I could no longer serve as adviser to the paper."

The funds in question were used by a student group on campus to put on a "pretty elaborate" event which ran up a bill that was "considerably more than they had in their budget," according to Moore. Some estimated the show's cost at more than $22,000, while the group's total budget was barely more than $1,000, Moore said.

Following Tempo's investigation into suspected funding irregularities, Arnold insisted to Moore that he and his advisory board staff review the paper before print, according to the complaint filed by Moore and Providence. Moore forwarded the message on to Providence, who refused to comply, stating the demand constituted unconstitutional prior review. Shortly after, Interim President Frank Pogue, the other defendant named in the lawsuit, terminated Moore from his position.

According to the complaint, Arnold also then sent multiple e-mails to Providence questioning his motivation and suggesting he had a responsibility to report more favorably about the university.

"As the voice of the students, has Tempo reflected them in a positive light? Is its reputation built on empowering or denigrating members of the CSU family? Has Tempo given the students a good return on their financial investment? Those are three questions I'd like to ask. Rhetorically, of course," Arnold said in a Dec. 2008 e-mail to Providence.

While he is aware the university equates school funding with a responsibility to report in a way that "uplifts the CSU community," Providence said, he does not agree that loyalty trumps free and independent journalism.

"I don't view Tempo's role as trying to put people out on Front Street, ruining their reputation," Providence said. "But from my standpoint, a student newspaper does at least two things: Reflect honestly the university it is a part of ... and be in the business of holding the administration accountable."

In addition to Arnold's attempts to impose administrative oversight on the Tempo's content, Providence said his other grievance is over withheld information about the paper's budget. According to Providence, university officials will not disclose to him the costs related the paper's production, trainings, conferences, and other expenses. Additionally, Providence is not privy to where his paper's funding comes from or how much is immediately available for his use.

"All of that fundamental information has basically been denied to us," he said. "I kind of viewed it as another way of controlling the newspaper. If we don't know how much we have, we don't know how much we can do. They do keep paying the bills, but we're operating in the blind."

According to Adam Goldstein, attorney advocate for the Student Press Law Center, deliberate withholding of information necessary for the newspaper's general operation could constitute a violation of free press law.

"If he's asking and they're not telling him, it does set up a censorship question," Goldstein said. "It could be part of a pattern of attempts to control [the paper]."

To Providence and Moore, control is exactly what CSU administration is looking for.

"The idea is that you protect the image of the president and the image of the university," Moore said. "I would hear from colleagues, 'you can't just let those students write whatever they want.'"

Moore and Providence filed suit the Northern District of Illinois Feb 3. Relief is sought under both the First Amendment and the Illinois College Campus Press Act, which protects Illinois college newspapers from censorship and prior review by campus officials. The Illinois College Campus Press Act also prohibits a collegiate media adviser from being terminated or otherwise disciplined for refusing to suppress protected free expression rights of student journalists.

Arnold and Pogue declined comment due to pending litigation.

By Kate Maternowski, SPLC staff writer

© 2009 Student Press Law Center

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