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Amid outcry, Grambling State University student newspaper editors' suspensions overturned

October 22, 2013

LOUISIANA — Student editors at Grambling State University say they were suspended from their newspaper last week without reasonable cause, while university officials argue they violated The Gramblinite’s code of ethics.

“If the (first) amendment was respected at GSU I wouldn't be suspended from The Gramblinite,” opinions page editor Kimberly Monroe tweeted Monday.

“We were ‘suspended’ because we spoke our mind,” tweeted online editor David Lankster.

GSU has been in the national spotlight for days due to students’ demands for greater financial accountability, better facility conditions and student-to-teacher ratios. Its football team staged a boycott last week to protest poor conditions in the locker room and refused to travel to its Saturday game, forfeiting instead.

The paper has been covering the protests, and last week, Lankster tweeted photos on The Gramblinite’s account of what he said was mold and mildew in the locker room as well as holes in the ceilings and floor mats.

Lankster was suspended for posting “opinion-based” tweets, and Monroe was suspended for organizing a student rally. Wanda Peters, the newspaper’s adviser, said the suspensions were due to a violation of staff policy.

“They were suspended because they violated the items in our code of ethics which they sign every semester as part of the application process,” Peters said.

She said the suspensions were overturned Monday, after the situation gained widespread attention following a blog post on allDigitocracy posted Sunday.

Janet Guyden, dean of GSU’s College of Professional Services, said she overturned the suspensions because Peters hadn’t followed the correct procedure. She said both cases were pending review Tuesday.

“Once the review has been done, if the suspension is warranted, then it will be done,” Guyden said.

Lankster said it should have been clear that the opinions he was tweeting belonged to football players, not to The Gramblinite. He acknowledged that he posted one tweet that said the administration didn’t care about the football team, without attributing that statement to another person. That tweet was deleted by a coworker, Lankster said, although he believes it was clear from the context that it was not his own personal opinion or the newspaper's.

Lankster said he kept tweeting, including photos of the dilapidated locker room, because he was the “only one who knew the news.”

“I was getting a lot of followers and I was getting a lot of buzz,” he said. “And people were actually looking at the real conditions.”

Peters said Lankster was suspended for starting a “Twitter beef” with GSU spokesperson Will Sutton on The Gramblinite’s account and later on his own account.

“He let his personal feelings come out,” she said, “and generally attacked a public relations person for doing their job.”

Sutton criticized Lankster and The Gramblinite last week for using anonymous sources when reporting on a meeting between football players and the school’s president, and Lankster retaliated. But Sutton said he was not responsible for the suspension.

“I had nothing to do with the actions taken at the campus newspaper,” Sutton said in an email. “I fully support The Gramblinite, and I encourage them to be aggressive.”

Lankster tweeted the locker room photos Saturday. The photos illustrated many of the complaints raised by the team in an open letter to the school about inadequate health and safety conditions in their facilities. The letter has caught the attention of media outlets like ESPN and the New York Times.

“In our opinion, the complex is in horrible condition, and has many hazards that may contribute to our overall health,” the team wrote.

In Monroe’s case, Peters said the suspension was prompted by her role organizing an on-campus rally on Friday that aimed to raise awareness of issues on campus such as deteriorated facilities and financial accountability. Monroe admitted to organizing the rally, but said she was exercising freedom of speech.

“I think any person is granted that right first, as a constitutional right,” she said.

The Gramblinite’s code of ethics says staff should “avoid involvement in campus events, politics, demonstrations and social causes that would cause a conflict of interest, or the appearance of such conflict.”

Monroe said other Gramblinite staffers who simultaneously worked for student government had never been sanctioned for violating the code’s conflict of interest policy. However, she stopped short of saying she had been targeted.

Lankster said he plans to resign from The Gramblinite.

“This is something that I don’t want to be a part of,” he said. “Who would want to go back to a situation where they fire you or tried to fire you?”

Monroe said she hadn’t decided whether to return as opinions editor.

“Right now, I still haven’t gone back,” Monroe said. “I want to make sure that I want to go back.”

The suspensions prompted the National Association of Black Journalists to publicly decry what it called “the adversarial pattern that persists between administrators and student media at historically black colleges and universities” in a statement Tuesday.

“These incidents involving The Gramblinite should have been used as opportunities for teachable moments … on the issues of unbiased reporting, press freedoms and journalistic integrity in the Digital Age, but instead have unfolded as another series of unfortunate events between (a historically black university) administration and its newspaper,” NABJ vice president Errin Haines Whack wrote.

By Samantha Sunne, SPLC staff writer. Contact Sunne by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 123.

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© 2013 Student Press Law Center

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