When Vanessa Curry came to teach journalism at the University of Texas at Tyler, part of her assignment was to improve the student newspaper, The Patriot. The unread papers that filled The Patriot’s racks said it all; students didn’t read the paper, which Curry said was filled mostly with opinion pieces.
“What they wanted when they hired me was someone who would turn it into a real newspaper,” said Curry.
In the three years since she was hired, Curry did just that. Former Patriot editor Melissa Tresner said Curry taught her students to think like reporters, aggressively pursuing important campus stories and using freedom of information requests to get what they wanted. The paper’s staff has collected scores of Texas Intercollegiate Press Association awards for everything from editorials to headline writing. It is an entirely different paper, with a new design and a broadsheet format. Curry said the racks are now left empty.
Despite the paper’s promising direction, university administrators told Curry in March that she would not be the adviser for the coming fall. UT-Tyler President Rodney Mabry said the decision was not motivated by the newspaper’s content, but Curry was convinced the university was trying to indirectly control the student paper.
Unfortunately, Curry is just one example of a growing number of adviser dismissals at the college and high school levels. About half a dozen advisers have come forward with complaints since May.
Ousting an ambitious adviser in favor of someone who may be easier to manipulate is certainly one way administrators can control the content of a newspaper. Under the cover of private personnel issues, reassigning an adviser allows administrators to keep bad news out of student publications without the public relations nightmare of censoring the paper outright.
But, as many advisers have discovered, it is difficult to prove that such dismissals are really backhanded censorship and not just an employment decision well within the legal limits of administrators. If an adviser has a less-than-squeaky-clean record, it may be an impossible challenge.
With no clear legal precedents in these murky issues, advisers who want to protest removal must be willing to fight – for their jobs and for their students’ rights.
THE FIRING LINE
Curry is one of the few advisers whose story ends happily. With a little support from her students, journalism advocates, the local media and the American Civil Liberties Union, the UT-Tyler administration caved and Curry got her contract renewed. But the situation that took her just months to resolve has gone on for years at other schools. Most advisers aren’t as lucky as Curry; in many cases, advisers are unable to fight the decisions of school administrators.
For months, the Journalism Education Association’s (JEA) e-mail listserv for media advisers has been buzzing with talk of administrative retaliation and pressure.
“There seems to be more advisers saying this, that they are in trouble or they are being hassled,” said John Bowen, chairman of JEA’s Scholastic Press Rights Commission and an adviser from Lakewood High School in Ohio.
Although veteran journalism educators say getting rid of an adviser who pushes for quality student journalism is hardly a new concept, the wave of advisers dismissed in the past few months seems to suggest it is a growing trend in education.
About half a dozen terminated advisers in the past several months contacted the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), a nonprofit legal agency that focuses on educating students about media law. Although most of those advisers where from high schools, “It is a great problem at the college level and at the high school level,” said Mark Goodman, executive director of the center.
Journalism educators and adviser advocates say removing the adviser is just a clever way to manipulate content, especially at colleges and universities, where First Amendment rights for students are more protected.
“The people that administrators are pissed about are students, but they can’t touch them,” said Chris Carroll, chair of College Media Advisers’ (CMA) Adviser Advocate Program, which investigates disputes between colleges and advisers. “The way to exert pressure on the paper peripherally is to go after their adviser because they think [the adviser is] their puppet.”
Ron Spielberger, executive director of CMA, said sometimes advisers walk a tight line between job security and teaching students what needs to be taught. “More often than not, it’s a situation where the school doesn’t want unpleasant truths told,” Spielberger said.
And many administrators feel they have the right to restrict the rights of their students – particularly high school principals, who can use the Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier Supreme Court decision to justify censoring a student publication. (The 1998 decision said public high school officials could censor a student publication if they could provide some educational justification for the censorship.) A survey of 900 public elementary and secondary school administrators conducted in 2001 by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development and the First Amendment Center showed that 75 percent do not think students should be allowed to report on controversial issues in the student newspaper without approval from school administration.
The answer to why administrators would have such little consideration for student media may seem simple. Both college and high school administrators are motivated by the desire to promote a positive image of their school. “Everybody wants a ‘good news’ newspaper,” said Kathleen Zwiebel, president of the Columbia Scholastic Press Advisers Association.
Administrators are working in a complicated environment, some say, especially at the high school level. Principals are facing pressure to have their schools perform where it matters – on tests and with tough issues like school violence.
“School officials are perhaps even more pressured today than they ever have been to maintain a positive image,” said SPLC’s Goodman. “Today’s school administrator is much more a CEO than an educator.”
UT-Tyler’s department of communications chairman Kenneth Casstevens agreed. He said the trend in higher education is to bring in people who have business backgrounds, people who want to treat the student newspaper as an office newsletter.
Jay P. Goldman, editor of the School Administrator, the American Association of School Administrators’ magazine, said administrators are sometimes forced to make difficult decisions under the heat of battle – sometimes with little knowledge of student media.
“Not every school leader is totally apprised in the issues of school journalism,” Goldman said.
JOURNALISTS OR INSUBORDINATE EMPLOYEES?
When administrators claim an adviser’s dismissal is an employment decision, it can be difficult for advisers to prove censorship has taken place – especially for high school advisers and part-time faculty members who don’t have many rights under their contracts or the law.
As a non-tenured faculty member, Curry had few options in appealing the university’s decision not to renew her contract as adviser. The university didn’t legally owe her an explanation. Even though UT-Tyler was going to renew her teaching contract, not being adviser would have meant a $17,000 pay cut, according to Casstevens.
“If you are hired on a year-to-year contract, you can be dismissed at the whim of the administration,” said Fred Blevens, president of Southwest Education Council for Journalism and Mass Communications. Blevens was a member of a task force created by SPJ to investigate the incident with Curry and The Patriot.
Zwiebel said administrators often are looking for a way to get around directly censoring a newspaper so they do not have to face repercussions of that unpopular action.
“I think they are looking for a way to get around it so it doesn’t come back to them,” Zwiebel said.
Going after the adviser creates a murkier scenario, and the advisers often have a hard time finding support. Janet Ewell at Rancho Alamitos High School in Garden Grove, Calif., couldn’t convince the teachers union that the principal was stepping on students’ rights when he removed her from her post as adviser for La Nueva Voz (The New Voice). Ewell is a 10-year veteran of the paper and a journalism teacher.
“The journalism community sees it for what it is,” Ewell said. “But the union, for instance, is very clearly of the opinion that it is a personnel issue.”
At the end of April, when Ewell got her review by Principal Gene Campbell, he informed her that she wouldn’t be the paper adviser the next year (she would still teach English classes). “He told me he needed the paper to take another direction,” Ewell said.
Ewell claims Campbell has admitted to others that he fired her because he took issue with the editorial parts of the paper. In the past two years, Ewell said, Campbell was upset with editorials about hair and insects in cafeteria food, the limited number of toilets available to students, and some teachers not being as accessible as students wanted them to be. School district spokesman Alan Trudell said editorials such as these have appeared in school newspapers as long as there have been school newspapers, and Rancho Alamitos’ principal had never attempted to censor the paper in any way.
The teacher’s union could do little, Ewell said, because reassigning teachers is within the principal’s expected duties. She appealed to the school district, claiming the principal violated student’s speech and press rights under California education code section 48970, which bans prior restraint of student publications. A letter from the district in early July said this isn’t a First Amendment issue, but Ewell will be reinstated because she didn’t understand the expectations of the paper and wasn’t given a chance to meet them. The letter reaffirms Campbell’s right to reassign, gives Ewell “appropriate notice” of his intent to make someone else adviser and outlines adviser conduct. Ewell worries next year could be her last.
Journalism organizations are more likely sources for support. Groups such as SPJ, SPLC and CMA are willing to give advice and sometimes legal assistance to advisers who are removed from their positions.
CMA created the Adviser Advocate Program in 1998, which Carroll said gives teeth to the organization’s claim that it will support CMA members who are victims of negative action or pressured by university administrators for following CMA’s code of ethics.
“If an adviser is suffering negative consequences at their job as a result of practices advised in its code of ethical behavior, CMA will step in and help,” Carroll said. The Adviser Advocate Program investigates the situation, and, if necessary, censures the college, reprimanding it for being oppressive to student rights of free expression. Since its inception, the program has censured only two colleges – Mount St. Mary’s College in Maryland and Fort Valley State University in Georgia – but a handful of advisers come to it for advice every year.
Carroll, who helped create the advocate program, learned firsthand about administrative pressures when he worked as a student media adviser at the University of South Carolina- Columbia and was reassigned.
“There was an extreme atmosphere of control to the degree that it was really oppressive. … I am the polar opposite. I rubbed them the wrong way,” he said. “I think it had been the experience that people just rolled over and accepted it, but I am not like that.”
Former Fort Valley adviser John Schmitt – who was awarded $192,000 in April after suing over his 1998 dismissal, which he claimed was partially motivated by a desire to censor the paper – said CMA’s involvement helped him in his four-year battle with the university.
“No one wants to go into an alley fight alone, and I drew a great deal of comfort and reaffirmation from CMA’s support,” Schmitt said. “Sometimes I wondered whether I was doing the right thing in continuing the fight, and the continuing messages of support from other journalism educators kept me going on the right path.”
Chris Ransick – who lost his job as adviser of the Rapp Street Journal at Arapahoe Community College (ACC) in Littleton, Colo., a year ago – is another former adviser who turned to CMA for help.
“There are a lot of people who don’t know a lot about journalism ethics but are in a position to sort of mess with you,” said Ransick, who was the newspaper adviser since 1991. He still teaches journalism classes at the college.
Ransick claims he was removed because he wouldn’t review the paper before publication, and because the administration didn’t like the hard news style of the paper. “I taught my students to do an ethical job but to be hard-nosed about it,” he said. “[The administration] didn’t like news reporting in general. They wanted public relations.”
Vice President for Instruction at ACC Dominic Latorraca said the decision to remove Ransick had nothing to do with the newspaper, but it involved personnel issues he could not discuss. He said Vice President of Student Services Dee McNeely Greene did not ask Ransick to review the paper before it came out. Latorraca welcomed CMA’s involvement, and said he may ask for input about media board policies.
“I would welcome them coming to campus and opening a dialogue where real issues can be discussed,” Latorraca said.
But even journalism organizations are usually wary of getting involved in an employment dispute. The scope of CMA’s Adviser Advocate Program is narrowly tailored, according to Carroll, so advisers can’t use CMA as leverage against their school in any situation. And according to SPJ President Al Cross, the Society tries to stay out of employment issues because it represents all journalists, from reporters to management.
Cross added that when the rights of journalists – including newspaper advisers – are being trampled, “that goes beyond an employment issue.”
STUDENTS IN THE MIDDLE
While administrators and advisers hash out their issues, some student publications suffer the affects of that tension.
“It’s an absolutely chilling way to control the student press,” JEA’s Bowen said.
In Colorado, ACC student Kat Robinson was the editor during Ransick’s final semester as adviser. Last fall, she said, the newspaper published only 800 papers for more than 7,000 students – and about 300 copies remained on the stands. She said only faculty members were reading the Rapp Street Journal.
“Between September and March, it was like a P.R. rag,” she said, adding that the paper covered stories with a positive spin about the college or the student senate. “I love going to ACC … but every school isn’t perfect, and that is what keeps a newspaper going.”
Ransick agreed that the paper didn’t cover hard news the way it used to. “Students aren’t learning journalism, they are learning public relations writing,” he said. He also said, though, that the editor who took over in the spring made some improvements.
The lack of campus news coverage inspired Robinson to start a Web site, the Arapahoe Free Press. Robinson said she wanted to start the Web site for a long time, but the Rapp Street Journal’s failure to cover an armed robbery on campus in the middle of the day helped her convince fellow students that the site was necessary. The story became the first lead article of the online publication, which carries the motto “unbiased, uncensored” and has gone on to cover stories about budget problems and high prices at the college bookstore.
“The goal is to give ACC students another option when it comes to news – actually to give them news,” Robinson said.
The editors of The Mountain Echo, the student newspaper at Mount Saint Mary’s College, also felt the stress when their adviser of 14 years, William Lawbaugh, came under administrative pressure several years ago. Lawbaugh wasn’t fired, but the administration of the college withheld Lawbaugh’s raise when he refused to edit the paper, which ran an editorial criticizing the provost, Lawbaugh said. The college eventually gave the professor his raise, but other assaults continued. In November 2000, the college paid $19,000 for a 10-day audit of the newspaper by international firm KPMG, which Lawbaugh says didn’t find any wrongdoing by the editors or the adviser.
The students weren’t afraid of the provost – even though she cut scholarship money for the editors – until she demanded Lawbaugh control the paper.
“It had a chilling effect on The Mountain Echo. It was like walking on eggs,” Lawbaugh said. “Editors did not want to hurt me or the paper further, so they were timid despite my stern advice to tell the truth and let the chips fall.”
Other papers stick out the tough times and continue doing what advisers taught them. The Fort Valley student newspaper, The Peachite, is one such student publication, according to Schmitt.
Before Schmitt’s advising contract was not renewed in 1998, The Peachite ran stories delving into the questionable past of Vice President for Academic Affairs Josephine Davis and how campus security treated an asthma attack in a situation where the student later died.
“While I was there, the students never stopped pursuing an aggressive, investigatory style of journalism, written and edited to high standards,” Schmitt said. “After I left in June of 1998, the style became a little less confrontational, but the attitude of professionalism remained.”
Schmitt said the year after he left, Davis sent students a list of “suggested” topics the newspaper could cover. “The students promptly ignored the suggestions, recognizing them for what they were,” he said.
‘CALL SOMEONE IMMEDIATELY’
Curry made administrators pay attention to her case by speaking out about what happened to her and bringing in journalism advocates. She quickly garnered support from local papers, which backed her through news and editorial coverage. SPJ put together a three-member task force to investigate the issue. The ACLU was about to announce it would take on Curry’s case – until the administration recanted its decision the first week in May.
Some speculate the media attention caused the change of heart. But UT-Tyler President Mabry said there was a lack of information and misinformation that affected the decision not to renew Curry’s contract, and that decision was not based on the paper’s content or student reporting.
Several of the advisers interviewed had advice for other teachers who find themselves in similar situations:
• Get some attention. “Call someone immediately,” said Jim Highland, SPJ vice president of campus affairs. “Call the local media. Call the newspaper in the state that considers itself the state newspaper. … Then call the SPJ.”
• Get the students involved in writing letters and investigating the legality of the case. Sometimes a good, old-fashioned show of support can work, too. At UT-Tyler, the newspaper staff gave out 150 black T-shirts with white letters spelling out “Freedom of the Press.”
• Join and be an active member of a journalism organization like CMA or SPJ. “These organizations can provide quite a bit of backup in difficult times,” Schmitt said.
• Be squeaky clean and have something to show for it. Great personnel evaluations and a handful of student journalism awards can save an adviser, or at least make it look bad for an administrator to toss you out.
• Exhaust appeal possibilities and keep good records. JEA’s Bowen suggests getting the teacher’s union involved and getting all requests from administrators in writing.
• Be wary of using school telephones or e-mail to discuss your case. SPLC’s adviser tip sheet warns that school e-mail can be monitored by school officials.
• Do future advisers a favor and help create new policies. As part of his settlement with Fort Valley, Schmitt and the ACLU wrote a new publications policy that prevents the paper’s adviser from being removed, transferred or fired for refusing to suppress student expression or edit the paper. “It would have done no good, in the long run, to simply take the money and run if future advisers were not going to be protected from the same abuse,” Schmitt said.
Amanda Lehmert is a summer Pulliam/Kilgore intern at SPJ’s national headquarters. She is a senior at Emerson College.